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October 22, 2014

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ODDS ‘N’ ENDS:

One man’s theories on Vegas’ economy, then and now

News item: The Nevada casino industry reports a significant decline in gambling revenue for a third consecutive month, blaming weakness in the national economy. Gambling revenue on the Strip falls 4.8 percent in March, according to the latest figures from the state Gaming Control Board. This follows declines of 3.1 percent in February and 1.3 percent in January. The decline in gambling revenue in March amounts to 1.5 percent statewide and 2 percent in Clark County.

Short version: Las Vegas is no longer recession-proof.

It wasn’t always that way, as legendary former Las Vegas bookmaker Scott Schettler remembers it.

During his career in the Nevada gaming industry, recessions came and went, but there was one constant: People always had money to bring to Las Vegas and gamble.

“Even in the 1970s, during the Carter administration when inflation was running in the double digits, in Las Vegas you would never know it,” said Schettler, best known for running the Stardust sports book in the 1980s. “There were never gas lines here, or anything like that.

“The bad economy would always be on the news, and we’d be standing here looking at each other like, ‘What are they talking about?’ Las Vegas always chugged right along, through all those recessions — until now.”

Schettler has a theory on why the current economic turbulence has affected Las Vegas in a way previous recessions did not. Las Vegas, contrary to popular belief, is no longer a gambling town.

It’s now essentially a Triple-A, Pacific Coast League city in the Southwest with great restaurants, upscale spas and fancy stores ... which also happens to offer gambling.

And although people still do like to bet the pass line or split 8s, even in a recession, they don’t have the money to indulge in the seaweed mud-wrap treatment or chow down on foie gras with a ginger-fig-balsamic reduction.

“The attractions of the city have become diversified outside of gambling,” Schettler said. “It used to be, even if you were on your deathbed, you’d still have money to gamble with. That might still be the case, but in Las Vegas gambling is no longer the main attraction. It’s the shows, the food, the shopping.

“The people that came here used to come to gamble. They didn’t come to eat. They didn’t have time to eat — they were too busy gambling. Sure, they would bring their wives and give them money to shop, blah, blah, blah, but the gambling was the thing.

“Now, they say, OK, we’ll budget $300 for the shows, $1,000 to shop and $150 for the slot machines.”

It’s a thought process that’s practically foreign to Schettler, who came to Las Vegas 40 years ago with big plans involving betting and booking sports.

“When guys like me came to town, you came because it was a gambling town,” Schettler, 66, said. “You came because you were in the business, or because you had a system to beat the blackjack tables, or you wanted to bet sports, or you came to deal. It was all gambling-related.

“The dealer jobs were good, and you had to be a good dealer. You couldn’t just stand there and throw cards around. To work in a sports book, to work as a bookmaker, you better know your stuff cold or you would get your pockets picked clean.”

Having relegated gambling to a diminished role in an ensemble cast of enticements, Las Vegas is suffering now that the economy has officially entered the tank. Schettler never thought he would see it happen, although he figures Las Vegas will manage to survive.

You might describe his mind-set as cautiously pessimistic.

“It could get ugly,” said Schettler, who now runs the gambling Web site Wiseguys.com. “The percentage of money tourists spend on gambling keeps dropping, and now you see these construction projects being put on hold.

“Las Vegas won’t collapse, but the weak spots will be cleared away. The flotsam will be gone and they’ll do what it takes to make money again. They’ll reinvent themselves again.”

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