Las Vegas, Nev. — On a wide boulevard not far from the Las Vegas Strip, concrete is being poured for a 512-room resort hotel. Nothing unusual about that, in a city that now has 52,000 hotel and motel rooms and adds about 3,000 new rooms a year.
Yet for Las Vegas - a city with a notorious reputation for 24-hour ubiquitous gambling, prostitution, and reported casino links to organized crime - this hotel is different. Its lobby will not jangle with the sound of dollar coins tumbling into a stainless-steel bin, its restaurants will boast no electronic keno boards, and there will be no green-felt-covered card tables in a windowless game room the size of a football field. The Alexis Park Hotel will be conspicuous for its banishment of legalized gambling.
A resort hotel without a casino would have been unimaginable in Las Vegas before the oil embargo and the economic recessions of the past decade. But today , the word among both old-timers and first-generation Las Vegans is that their city is no longer just nickel slots and glittery extravaganzas with French titles.
''We're attracting major industries, and we have good schools and services,'' says Ronald Lurie, mayor pro tem. ''It always comes as a surprise to people, but we think Las Vegas is a great place not just to visit, but also to stay.''
First it was the nationwide economic downturn - along with moves in other cities and states to expand legalized gambling - that made people here wonder if the gaming and entertainment that lure 15 million conventioneers and tourists a year might someday falter.
This, coupled with a growing sensitivity to the city's image, left leaders of this two-industry town contemplating an idea they'd rarely considered before - diversification.
Meanwhile, the city grew at one of the fastest rates in the United States, as single people and families came from all areas of the country seeking work. And their varied cultural and social interests often didn't include the casinos of downtown's ''Glitter Gulch'' or the gawdy show palaces along the five-mile Strip - even if economic necessity required them to work there.
Today about 500,000 people live in Greater Las Vegas, whereas until World War II the population had not topped 10,000. It's mostly uprooted New Yorkers and Carolinians and Ohioans and Californians - and Germans and Mexicans and Laotians , for that matter - who navigate this city's riverwide streets, shop its mushrooming shopping centers, and inhabit its wood-and-stucco subdivisions. And these people gladly tell visitors that their new home is a fine place to live and raise a family, sometimes to their own surprise and often to the utter astonishment of the folks back home.
''When I moved out here with two kids 10 years ago, a friend asked me honestly if Las Vegas had schools,'' recalls Kathy Espin, city editor of the Las Vegas Sun, one of two daily newspapers here.
Ms. Espin, who now has a third child, in many ways has a typical Las Vegas family. Her husband's paycheck comes from a casino. About 33 percent of the metropolitan labor force work in the gaming-entertainment industry.
But local officials say they expect that percentage to fall as more companies follow suit behind Levi Strauss and Tupperware, which have set up manufacturing or distribution centers here. ''Companies like that are now seriously considering Las Vegas,'' says Mardon Talbot, a business consultant formerly of Boise, Idaho. ''They're finding there is a stable community here, and a strong labor pool.''
The city tried to woo Citicorp, which plans to locate a 1,000-employee, credit-card processing center in the region. Landing a company such as Citicorp, with the accompanying aura of serious business, would have been a major plum for this image-conscious town. (Word that singer Lena Horne would open in Atlantic City after a successful run on Broadway had one Las Vegas columnist worrying in boldface type that ''maybe she doesn't want to play here''; and Chief Justice Warren Burger's purported characterization more than a year ago of the city as ''unsavory'' is still the talk of the town.) As a local banker put it, landing a national corporation would give Las Vegas ''the benefit of a big-image name that we couldn't buy.''
And the the city has other selling points as well. Just about everyone here cites multiple recreational opportunities. The city, with its towering hotels and flashing lights, seems to go out of its way to subdue the natural surroundings, but the ring of desert and weather-cut mountains encircling Las Vegas provide a wealth of camping, boating, and skiing possibilities.
After work or school and outdoor recreation, few locals appear to have the time or the inclination to frequent the city's entertainment emporiums. ''Unless he works down there, I'd say the average person (here) doesn't go to the casinos more than once a year, if that,'' says Paul Christensen, a city councilor and jewelry store owner. One Las Vegas cabbie puts it this way: ''I guess for us it's like working in an ice cream shop. You can only take so much of the stuff before you get a little tired of it.''
Kathy Espin has a theory about what it is that keeps the southwestern boomtown of Las Vegas in balance. In one scale, she says, are the large numbers of ''not well-educated, nonprofessional'' people who have come here and, as card dealers or casino managers, started earning more money than they ever dreamed possible.
''It can make for a lopsided, unstable society,'' she says. ''Kind of tacky, to tell you the truth.''
But this aspect of Las Vegas is counterbalanced, she theorizes, by the city's large and active religious community. Las Vegans are quick to inform the visitor that there are more churches per capita here than in any other large American city - 118 churches in the city limits, or one for every 1,400 people.
It's a fact that probably takes into account a few nondenominational churches on Las Vegas Boulevard that probably cater to the repentant tourist, but which does not include the city's numerous and well-known ''get-hitched-quick'' wedding chapels. More than half of the churches are affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reflecting the city's Mormon heritage. Most have strong community support.
And for a city where many residents are such recent arrivals, there is a surprisingly strong sense of community support. ''Actually I think it's because we're all so new,'' Ms. Espin says. ''We're away from the extended family, the old roots, so we band together.''
Community support - with the help in some cases of big names with big bucks - has led to a new main library, a new fine arts center, a new baseball field for the triple-A Las Vegas Stars, and a new 18,500-seat basketball arena for the well-loved Rebels of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Despite all the boosting undertaken by the locals, it's clear everything is not rosy in Las Vegas. The crime rate is high (though falling), and the city's reputation attracts an inordinate number of transient and homeless people. And several city officials say relations between the majority population and the black community - which makes up 13 percent of city residents - have deteriorated over the last decade.
Others note that the 24-hour nature of the city's economy can be disruptive for family life. And Kathy Espin says she worries sometimes about her children growing up where many of the role models - ''the people with the nicest houses and the flashy cars'' - are not usually the people she'd like her children to emulate. ''It's not always easy to convince a teen-ager of the merits of college when they know they can make more money dealing '21.' ''
But other parents say living in Las Vegas has helped prepare their children for the world they will inevitably face as adults.
Says Councilor Christensen, a Mormon who moved here from Utah as a child and who with his wife has reared four children,''I think living here can help teach children to see through some of the intrigues and dangers they might face in life.''