Greg Griffin said it's happened "a million times." He's probably exaggerating a tad, given he's been driving a cab for only a few decades.
"Well, it happens a lot," he said.
Here's how it usually goes down: Griffin will pull up to the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, and a fare will roll the luggage to the cab. He'll load it up, and the fare hops in. "Where to?" he'll ask. "The airport," the fare will say. As soon as Griffin hears that, he assumes the fare is a local.
It's about a $12 cab ride, and it takes minutes to get to McCarran International Airport from the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Compared with the $10-a-day parking rate in the economy lot at the airport — or the $16-a-day rate for long-term parking — keeping your car at the casino and taking a cab is a bargain. Surveillance footage confirmed MGM officials' suspicions that residents were leaving their cars there while they went on trips.
But that's over now.
On Thursday, MGM Resorts International will begin charging residents to pay for parking — something visitors have been doing since summer, when 11 of its hotel and casino properties led the way to begin the slow but steady elimination of free parking on the Strip.
Caesars Entertainment announced in November it would begin charging for parking at several of its Strip properties — though, for the foreseeable future, parking will remain free for locals, who can scan their Nevada driver's licenses at the gate. The Cosmopolitan followed suit and is joining the pay-for-parking crowd in 2017.
The new year will mark the end of an era for locals who have navigated the Strip without even thinking about dropping money to pay for parking. When MGM bucked this time-honored tradition, Las Vegas residents reacted the way one might when dealt a 12 against the blackjack dealer's face card: anger, despair and possibly the five stages of grief.
"It really sucks," Andy Herrera said. "That was one of the advantages of being from here, being able to go to the Strip and park for free. Now the casinos are treating us just like everyone else."
The 37-year-old has lived in Las Vegas since 2001 and has always enjoyed the access to free parking at the casinos. Well, not enjoyed exactly. More like, never even gave it much thought. It was just there.
He'd go to the Mirage — owned by MGM — for a nice dinner. Or the Bellagio from time to time. When family and friends came to visit, he never had to factor in paid parking when shuttling them to the Strip to do the tourist thing.
"Maybe we'll have to start charging them to take them to the Strip now," Angela Herrera said, sitting with Andy at Red Rock Casino and Resort's sports book watching an NFL game. Free parking here, Herrera noted, as he sipped on a beer.
When MGM first announced the pay-to-park plan, Steve Sebelius, a longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist, wrote that the move had been received like the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
"If the Declaration of Independence were being written today in Las Vegas, 'free Strip parking' would be enumerated with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights," he wrote. "Even the mob didn't dream of charging people for parking on the Strip."
MGM spokesman Gordon Absher ("The sacrificial lamb or the goat staked to the post in 'Jurassic Park,' " Sebelius quipped) anticipated a strong reaction from those who see free Strip parking as their birthright. He said all employees were prepped before the announcement.
"The level of backlash exceeded our expectations," Absher said.
On social media, the criticism was fierce — with one poster angrily wondering whether they'd soon start charging to use restrooms. An online petition was launched almost immediately after MGM's announcement and has more than 2,300 signatures.
Caesars Entertainment found itself getting hit with the backlash on Facebook when it tried to post a blog item celebrating five employees with 50 years at the casino — a happy feature that was greeted instead with an angry stream of comments about the pay-for-parking issue. It repeatedly had to explain that parking would remain free for locals on the Facebook posts.
Jennifer Forkish, Caesars Entertainment's vice president of communications, reemphasized the point when asked about locals paying for parking in the wake of MGM's shift beginning Thursday.
"We value the Nevada residents who choose to come to our properties, especially when Las Vegas provides them with so many options to choose from," she said. "That's why our self-parking program will continue to allow local residents, with proof of identification, access to free self-parking at all our Las Vegas properties for the foreseeable future."
Some have suggested boycotting the casinos that are charging for parking. Vendors who provide services to customers at the hotels say the parking costs will cut into their bottom line.
"I am a freelance hair and makeup artist, and I frequent MGM properties multiple times per week.. And it is simply way to costly to pay 20-30 each time I'm there... Not to mention if I have to raise prices to my clients to accommodate this extra cost... I don't find it fair for either one of us to have to pay," Chantal Perry wrote on the petition's page.
But Absher said that the parking wasn't free for the hotel to provide, and that the cost of upgrading and maintaining the garages and structures made the move necessary. He also said that the parking structures had long-been "misused."
"You wouldn't believe the number of cars that had been parked for weeks," he said. "People were storing vehicles there, taking taxis to the airport from there or parking and then walking to their job."
MGM Resorts spends $30 million annually on parking structure maintenance for 37,000 spots. The upgrades at some of the properties have included the rows of red and green lights that let motorists know if an aisle has open spots. That cuts down on constant circling and congestion inside the lots.
Some of the structures also needed upgrades because of their age — though he said their property at Circus Circus would continue to have free parking because they were limited in the improvements that could be made at the site, which opened in 1968.
"If we couldn't make the upgrades, we didn't feel as though we could charge," Absher said.
He also said the decision to begin charging prompted the corporation to hire a firm to run its parking facilities — shifting about 400 valets and parking employees from the MGM payroll to Chicago-based firm SP Plus Corp. Since that change, the parking attendants have been guiding people through the garages as they get used to the pay kiosks set up throughout. Up until Thursday, locals were able to simply scan their driver's license to park for free.
What MGM did by introducing the parking fees — $10 for self-parking for four to 24 hours and $18 for valet for the same time period — was attack a "sacred cow" for locals, according to Anthony Lucas, a professor of hotel administration at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He said it set in motion a "slippery slope where it's only a matter of time before everyone pays everywhere."
Lucas, who worked in the hotel and casino industry before teaching at UNLV, said casinos on the Strip have developed a diversified entertainment portfolio of fine dining, high-end shows, clubs and conventions to go along with gambling. That's a different business model from when the Strip was born.
Lucas said the "genius" of giving away free drinks, cheap food and even free or discounted rooms to gamblers was knowing the house advantage at the slots and tables would allow them to make fat profits. It was a business model embraced for decades until the city began to market itself as a destination for fine dining, shows with high-profile stars, A-level DJs at dance clubs and upgraded rooms where people could come and not drop a dime in a slot machine.
"Las Vegas is great at reinventing itself. In fact, they are unbelievable at reinventing themselves for sure," Lucas said. "Maybe the best in the world at it."
But reinvention means change, and residents aren't won over yet.
Which may explain why some of the casinos that haven't joined the pay-for-parking push are looking at their decision as a possible edge. For now, at least.
The Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, Encore and Treasure Island remain holdouts with free self-parking for all.
Michelle Knoll, spokeswoman for Treasure Island, said the hotel had no plans to begin charging for self-parking for locals or visitors despite the sea of casinos that are.
"They don't call us Treasure Island for nothing," Knoll said.