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December 18, 2014

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Local casinos draw fire

For some, "neighborhood casinos" are the epitome of what's wrong with Las Vegas.

Big, garish and sometimes literally next door, locals casinos got started two decades ago in the Las Vegas Valley with the start-up of Sam's Town on Boulder Highway. Since then the number of these hotel-casinos, heavily marketed to the valley's own residents, has grown to more than a dozen.

And at least a dozen more could be coming. But because of their very nature, neighborhood casinos generate more emotional resistance from their would-be neighbors than casinos downtown or on the Strip.

Most recently, a proposal to establish a new casino in Spring Valley generated heated resistance from hundreds of nearby residents. Those residents are appealing a 3-1 vote by the Clark County Commission to allow the casino to go into a residential shopping center.

The residents' appeal is the first test of a new law designed to limit the number of new neighborhood casinos appearing in residential areas. In 1998 the Nevada Legislature passed and the governor signed Senate Bill 208.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Mark James, a Las Vegas Republican first elected in 1992 -- about the time, James said, he noticed the casinos becoming "really prevalent in the neighborhoods."

"It became very apparent that this was a major growth area," James said. "I have always felt that that was an inappropriate way for the area to grow.

"Neighborhoods are supposed to be places where you get away from the industry of the city," James said. He wants to see parks, schools, shopping and consumer services, "and not major tourist attractions that draw lots of 24-hour traffic."

Mary Kincaid, one of the three Clark County Commissioners who voted for the Spring Valley casino, said she believes the vote followed legislative intent.

"We followed every criteria the Legislature set," Kincaid said. She pointed out that the legislation allowed three other casinos within a few miles of the Spring Valley proposal.

"I think if you put a casino in the middle of a neighborhood, it is not a good thing," Kincaid said. "But Spring Valley is on the (Las Vegas) Beltway.

James doesn't mind seeing new neighborhood casinos in master-planned communities, the new developments sprawling over thousands of acres on the perimeter of the urban area. However, James said those exceptions should only apply if the casinos go through the entire public approval process that the master-planned communities go through.

James said he's carefully watching the Spring Valley appeal. If the decision isn't overturned by the review panel created in Senate Bill 208, he said he will try to strengthen the law to make it even more difficult to establish a casino in a residential area.

Even with the state and local efforts to control the development of neighborhood casinos, more are almost certainly coming. The measure didn't affect any of those already operating, and more than a dozen more were grandfathered in.

Properties under contract for casino development were allowed by the law, explained Lesa Coder, Clark County's current planning director.

The law also provides exemptions for new casinos at the intersections of major highways, she said.

The valley's cities also have taken action to prevent growth of neighborhood casinos. Although Boulder City has always kept the casinos out of the town, next-door Henderson moved to limit more casinos in 1998.

Henderson's ordinance strengthens SB208, requiring among other things that a new hotel-casino have at least 200 rooms, numerous amenities and go on a single piece of land of at least 25 acres.

The Henderson City Council passed the ordinance after proposed neighborhood casinos received heavy public resistance.

"We have learned from some of the battle-scarring that has happened in Henderson that there is this tension between residential neighborhoods and gaming operations that just doesn't work," said Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson. "We don't think that gaming and residences go with one another.

"We don't intend to do any more," he said. Like James, Gibson said there is room for an exception for master-planned developments.

He said other cities are likely to follow Henderson's lead.

True to his prediction, the Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday passed unanimously an ordinance calling for the state to strengthen SB208 "to prohibit the establishment of neighborhood casinos," and directing city staff to draft a bill for the next session of the Legislature.

But as much as people say they don't want big casinos in their neighborhoods, their neighbors are often the ones filling up the rows of slot machines and blackjack tables.

A 1997-98 study of Clark County residents by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority found that gambling is second only to going to the movies among "leisure time activities." Nearly three-quarters of county residents gamble as least occasionally, and of those who do gamble, nearly half do so at least once a week.

And the news for the owners of locals casinos is good. More residents are gambling outside the Strip or downtown. The authority's study found that 72 percent of county residents are gambling outside the two central gambling areas, compared with 61 percent in a similar study two years earlier.

Those residents are likely to continue going to neighborhood casinos, said Terrence Jicinsky, the convention authority's marketing research manager. He said the bureau's research points to two principal factors for their success: Locals like them because they are easy to get to, and the locals find that they have good quality and low-priced food and beverages.

And in a population that has doubled to 1.3 million since 1980, neighborhood casinos have a constant source of fresh customers.

But critics say that neighborhood casinos are taking a toll on residential areas.

The Clark County commissioners' approval of the Spring Valley casino raised the stakes for many throughout the valley who don't want one next door, said Ron Madsen, an attorney who worked with the citizens' group opposed to the Spring Valley proposal.

"I think there's just a general anxiety that if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere," Madsen said. "There's no firebreak to keep it from happening anywhere else."

The review panel is a subcommittee of the Gaming Policy Committee, a state board that hasn't met in years. Madsen said he'd like the committee to release a public statement sending a strong, unequivocal message to politicians in the valley that casinos in residential areas won't be allowed.

William Thompson, a UNLV professor and researcher of public administration and the gambling industry, shares some concerns about neighborhood casinos.

Casinos downtown and on the Strip help the region by bringing in tourists and their dollars. But neighborhood casinos, Thompson said, often take money out of the valley.

"I think the bad thing for Las Vegas is the general economic posture," Thompson said. While new casinos in unincorporated parts of Clark County are required to have a minimum of 300 rooms in order to get an unrestricted gaming license, Thompson said many of those rooms stay empty.

"They do not cater to tourists," he said. "They do not bring in dollars to Las Vegas."

Thompson's colleague at UNLV, International Gaming Institute Executive Director Shannon Bybee, doesn't agree. Bybee said the money circulating through the casinos is good for the local economy because it provides jobs.

Neighborhood casinos also fund local government through taxes, including high property taxes, Bybee said.

He acknowledges that neighborhood casinos provide something that many people crave: entertainment.

A visit to Arizona Charlie's, a Decatur Boulevard landmark and one of the first neighborhood casinos in the valley, finds many locals gambling on a recent weekday.

"They offer a source of entertainment," said Bob Fuss, a financial analyst who was gambling on slot machines. Fuss, who lives in The Lakes area, said he enjoys the friendly atmosphere and good food at the hotel-casino.

Ed and Gail Mollring, who retired to Las Vegas from Tucson, Ariz., also frequent the casino.

"They make everything convenient," said Gail Mollring, including the games, the food and the parking.

Despite its appeal to locals, some people living near Arizona Charlie's aren't happy with having the casino nearby.

"They simply don't belong in neighborhoods," said Amos Elliott Jr., a retired deputy chief for Metro Police. Elliott lives literally next door to the casino's parking lot.

Traffic, too, is a concern, Elliott said. Elliott, who moved into his house in 1955, waged a battle when Arizona Charlie's grew from a bowling alley to a casino in 1988. Elliott said he gathered 241 signatures from neighbors opposed to the project.

Since then, he has fought parking and road right-of-way issues with the casino.

Other neighbors who have moved in since the casino was built don't have as much of an issue with the casino. Jose Gutierrez and his family moved into his home on Brush Street eight years ago, but he doesn't find the casino a problem.

"It doesn't bother me at all," Gutierrez said.

And some nearby residents welcome the casino.

"I like it," said Phillip E. Kohl, an eight-year resident of Evergreen Avenue, who lives just a home away from the casino. He said the casino gives him a place to go for meals.

"I'm single and I don't like to cook."

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