Historians here trace the tipping point of this city from a mob-dominated desert outpost to a corporation-driven entertainment mecca back to 1988.
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.
"Just five to 10 years ago, you heard all the time that this was a middle-class working town where you could ... work hard and afford a house close to your work," says Robert Parker, an urbanist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "That's not true anymore. The frontier is moving further and further out to where a normal worker has to drive two hours just to find an affordable home."
But amid the hoopla of the Wynn opening, and in a state where 50 to 60 percent of the state's general fund is generated by the resort industry, Hollingsworth, Mayor Oscar Goodman, and others trumpet the advantages of growth and the increased diversity of the economy. In 1970, 70 percent of Los Vegas's income came from gambling. Last year, that figure was 40 percent. Along with the growth of gaming has come pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, Internet development, computers, alternative power, and aerospace. Many of those businesses have been enticed here with the incentive of no state corporate income tax or personal income tax from neighboring states, especially California.
Today, just 22 percent of the state's workforce is tied to hotels, gaming, and recreation compared with 29 percent in 1995. And many observers tout the increased quality of the companies which run the casinos, the Harvard MBAs who administer them, and the fact that they are publicly traded on Wall Street as evidence that Las Vegas is increasingly "legit."
"Let's face it, there isn't enough illegal money in the world to build this many casinos ... so you are seeing a city that is very different than the Las Vegas of lore," says Hal Rothman, author of "Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the 21st Century." "These are all publicly traded companies on NASDAQ and NYSE.... This isn't the world of Tony 'the Ant' Spilotro."
That comment is reflected in those of tourists from one end of the strip to the other, many who have been coming here for decades.
"When you came here in the '60s, the hotels, the casinos, everything reeked of smoke," says Pat Schultz, a local government worker from Chicago who has been coming twice a year for decades.
"Things are cleaner, more upbeat, safer. There's much more to do [than] just gambling."
Still, one of the things that revived the city's fortunes since 9/11 is a new promotion called "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" - a series of commercials in which actors are seen doing silly things from getting married in a wedding boutique to fantasizing they are line dancers.
"Other local businesses [besides gaming] were upset at first because they have been trying to convince people to move their manufacturing and other companies here," says Kathleen Foley, editor of Nevada Business Journal. "But the campaign has become so successful that it is generating a multiplier effect into the convention and business community as well ... so they stopped complaining."
The ability of Las Vegas to sell itself as a destination where the norms and rules of daily life are thrown out the window, continues to be the city's biggest draw. "Vegas has managed to learn how to make itself be all things to all people," says historian Rothman. "If you are into country music, there is a niche for you here, or if you are into NASCAR there is a niche, or if you are a billionaire or drive a Chevette or Yugo, there is a place for you."
As such, says Rothman, Vegas has reaped the fallout from Indian gaming that began in 1988 and has spread to 28 states. Indeed, the spread of gambling has only helped to secure the strip as an entertainment mecca. "The Wynn opening is another pivotal moment in the normalization of leisure and gaming as economic forces in American society," says Rothman.