Las Vegas glitz dulled by growing pains
Historians here trace the tipping point of this city from a mob-dominated desert outpost to a corporation-driven entertainment mecca back to 1988.Skip to next paragraph
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That was the year business mogul Steve Wynn plunked down the unheard of sum of $700 million to build the copper-skinned uber-casino "Mirage." The move created a model for clearing away old gambling hotels of the Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin "rat pack" era and replacing them with casinos the size of small castles - because some of them were castles - on a boulevard stretching out of downtown.
A steady succession has followed, transforming the skyline with a glass pyramid, faux European palaces - with moats - and a space needle with a roller coaster on top.
Thursday, after 17 years of incessant construction, Mr. Wynn opens a new casino, once again the most expensive in the world, at $2.7 billion. Local officials embrace the mirror-skinned leviathan with its lake and golf course as a symbol that world demand for the city's ever-morphing formula of gambling, restaurants, and entertainment spectacles seems boundless. And they're relieved that tourism has returned to record levels - 38 million annually - after 9/11.
But all the new opulence is also proving divisive, as it fuels unabated growth and causes many residents to feel left behind amid the glitter.
Many who live in America's fastest-growing city say the soaring billions in wealth generated by Vegas as an international destination for world travelers has not trickled far beyond casino floors. Likewise, many who study the effects of rapid growth - the city had just 5,100 residents the year before the state legalized gambling in 1931 - say the traffic congestion, smog, crime, and insufficient social services show little sign of improving.
"I dare you to find another community of this size with the kind of transportation, schools, hospitals, and other social services that are as bad as we have here," says Richard Marianetti, and a resident of East Las Vegas since 1972, a shift supervisor at the Imperial Palace Casino. He ticks off a growing list of gripes: "lousy" bus service, five-hour waits at emergency rooms, schools with 50 students in a class, limits on watering lawns and car washing - despite the lavish use of fountains and pools in landscapes throughout the strip.
"If you want a bus to work, forget about it, but if you want a limo or cab to a casino no problem," says Mr. Marianetti. "Everything is geared toward the hotels and tourists but when it comes to the people who actually live here, they come last."
Such comments are easy to find among residents and academics, and acknowledged by some officials who say that the continued onslaught of 6,000 to 7,000 new residents per month has made it impossible to provide adequate infrastructure.
"[W]e have to get a handle on all those things," says Somer Hollingsworth, president and CEO of the Nevada Development Association. No. 1 priority is schools, he says. In each of the past few years, 15,000 more students have been enrolled in June than started in September. "Schools, hospitals, fire, police, roads all need to keep up," says Hollingsworth. "Our performance in some of these areas [is] nothing to brag about."
The soaring cost of housing is another area of concern. In 1997, residential development cost roughly $20,000 per acre. That figure has climbed to $700,000 today. The spike has made Las Vegas increasingly unaccessible to the middle class. In addition, high-rise condos, a hot phenomenon on the real estate market right now, are being snapped up as second homes by wealthy out-of-towners.