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World & Nation

Even in a city built on illusion, the Stratosphere is having a tough time proving it’s on the Vegas Strip

PanSTARRS Comet Over Las Vegas
Is the Stratosphere Casino Hotel really on the Vegas Strip? In a city built on illusion, it’s difficult to say.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Blake Sartini never had any doubts when he bought the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino a little more than a year ago. It was on the Las Vegas Strip.

He said it is on Las Vegas Boulevard. True. He said it is a distinct part of the skyline. Also true. At 1,149 feet high, it’s the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States, rising like a giant exclamation point on the boulevard north of Circus Circus and the SLS Hotel and Casino.

“We are a Strip property,” Sartini said flatly.

But once again, some in Las Vegas are having an identity debate: Where does the Strip actually come to an end on the north?

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In a city that exists in the middle of the desert and provides travelers an illusion that they’re in Paris, New York or Venice while luring them into believing that they could become instant millionaires, it is perhaps not altogether surprising this is really a debate about perception versus reality.

la-na-g-vegas-strip-boundary-20181127
 
(Los Angeles Times)

The southern stretch of the Strip has mostly avoided this confusion. A historic landmark, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign built in 1959, greets people on Las Vegas Boulevard before they reach the stretch of famous hotels. Few, if anyone, will disagree it’s the official start of the Strip. (MGM Resorts, which owns several casino properties on the Strip, said it considers Russell Road to Sahara Avenue to be the Strip. Caesars Entertainment, which also owns a stable of casino properties, didn’t weigh in on the matter.)

But even the welcome sign isn’t entirely accurate. It sits near Russell Road within a township called Paradise, which is located in Clark County, not technically Las Vegas. Sartini said people arriving on the highway or through McCarran International Airport — and there are some 42 million of them each year — aren’t making such distinctions.

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“When people are staying at the Bellagio, they think they’re staying in Las Vegas, but it’s really Clark County,” he said.

The debate — or “conversation,” as Sartini prefers to call it — started when his group, Golden Entertainment, purchased the Stratosphere for $850 million a little more than a year ago. The hotel is in the midst of a $140-million renovation and is undergoing a rebranding effort that includes new rooms, revamped food offerings and upgraded decor.

Sartini — in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal not long after he purchased it — said that the Stratosphere was definitely on the Strip. It got plenty of attention.

But Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the discussion over the Strip’s boundary actually seemed to date back to when casino mogul Bob Stupak opened the Stratosphere in 1996.

Green said Stupak was reported to have said that he would be extending the Strip with his iconic observation tower, which was built when the Las Vegas Strip was growing with big-themed casinos and resorts, including Treasure Island, Luxor and MGM Grand. Green said Stupak believed that only in Las Vegas could he move the iconic stretch of boulevard to incorporate his property with the tall tower.

“Bob Stupak was an incredible promoter,” Green said. “He was always pulling stuff and saying stuff like that.”

Still, Stupak didn’t really succeed in officially moving the Strip’s point of demarcation in the north, where it had been in place since the early 1950s. Erik Pappa, spokesman for Clark County, said Sahara Avenue remained — and remains — the official end of the Strip. The Stratosphere is several blocks north of Sahara.

“I think facts matter,” Pappa said.

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10 U.S. road signs to see before you die
The 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign greets people on Las Vegas Boulevard. It's actually located in Clark County, technically not Vegas.
(Dreamstime / Tribune News Service)

Pappa agreed that most people coming to Las Vegas don’t care about such geographic boundaries, however, and are likely unaware when they cross into Paradise, Clark County or whatever the government agencies have laid out as borders. Still, he said, the Stratosphere is not a part of the Las Vegas Strip.

But the city of Las Vegas has also been staking out its southern border more clearly and perhaps has contributed to the confusion about the geographic end of the Strip as well.

A $400,000 sign was illuminated a few months ago, featuring two tall showgirls. It is north of the Stratosphere and reads, simply, “City of Las Vegas.” Chalk one up for Sartini.

And a proposed gateway arch that is in the planning stages that would welcome drivers on Las Vegas Boulevard is set to be placed somewhere between Sahara and St. Louis Street just north of the Stratosphere, according to city officials, sometime next year.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said the archway was originally planned to be placed immediately north of Sahara Avenue, but she said the sprawling cluster of shops there had so many owners, it was going to be difficult to secure a deal.

She said Sartini then made a proposal: Put the sign on his property, putting the Stratosphere on both sides of the arch. Goodman loved the deal. Sartini, of course, likes it as well.

“We just want to make a statement that you’re coming into the excitement of downtown and into the historic heart of where it all began,” Goodman said. “We need another sign for those who end up at the old Sahara — now the SLS — and to keep drawing them in.”

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The question of the Strip’s boundary and what falls within it has also provided a ripple effect on a string of businesses between the Stratosphere and Sahara. If the Stratosphere considers itself a Strip property, well then, so does Chapel of the Bells, the Little Vegas Chapel, Destiny Tattoos and the Strip Gun Club. Consider the Stratosphere’s point of view as a rising tide lifting all boats.

Charlie Fusco said he’s been tattooing in Las Vegas for 24 years after moving from his hometown of Chicago. He said when customer ask for tattoos of the Strip, they want the Stratosphere as a part of it.

“I have tattooed it so many times,” Fusco said. “If you don’t include it, it doesn’t look like the Strip to them.”

Strip Gun Club was so confident it was on the Strip that its business filing six years ago made sure its name had the word “Strip” in it. Justin Michaels, a partner at the gun range, said “we are 100% on the Strip.”

The gun range is tucked between a marijuana dispensary and the Chapel of the Bells. Patricia Fullmer, general manager for the chapel, said she’s been helping couples get married and renew vows “on the Strip” since the 1970s.

Sartini is right, she said. “Everybody wants to be so PC these days, but it’s the Strip.”

Las Vegas Never Sleeps
A view of the Vegas Strip from the Cosmopolitan.
(Eric Lo / Getty Images)

A few yards north of the Chapel of the Bells at the Little Vegas Chapel ($200 to get married — $100 extra to be married by an Elvis impersonator: “He’s got to pay for that jump suit,” general manager Michael Kelly said), they are also firmly in the camp of being a Strip property.

Scott Roeben, who runs the Vital Vegas blog and keeps his finger on the pulse of these matters, said, “The Strip isn’t about legal boundaries; it’s the spirit of the thing.”

But across the street at the corner of Bob Stupak Way and Las Vegas Boulevard, Tracy Hovec had a different perspective while working her shift as a bartender at the Aztec Inn and Casino — a decades-old property that boasts a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game in the corner, a clapboard promising “Happy Hour Every Hour” and $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

Hovec said she understood Sartini’s argument and that it made sense — to a point. But she also said she chose to believe what the maps clearly point out: The Stratosphere isn’t on the Las Vegas Strip.

“If he wanted to be on the Strip, he should’ve bought a property on the Strip,” she said.

david.montero@latimes.com | Twitter: @davemontero


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