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July 28, 2014

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With incorporation tabled for now, Weekly explores the would-be city of Laughlin

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Erin Ryan

Vision and vexation: Don Laughlin transformed an outpost into a tourist destination. But the town is having some growing pains.

Standing before the Clark County Commissioners last week, Laughlin resident Michael Bekoff rattled off the town’s assets (minus the casino corridor) like a sad grocery list, adding that they would not provide enough sales tax revenue “to float a dinghy.”

He was testifying on the fiscal feasibility of Laughlin becoming its own city, with its own government and public services. The community of about 7,000 nestled in a bend of the Colorado River has been batting around the “incorporation” issue for years, and Bekoff’s neighbors spoke passionately on both sides. Many demanded the right to vote on the matter, but per the requirements of Senate Bill 262 (no vote without assurance of feasibility) and a report by the Nevada Department of Taxation (“... result for the city is an immediate budget deficit ...”), the board unanimously decided that Laughlin isn’t ready to stand on its own.

I read summaries of the state’s report and one provided by the Laughlin Economic Development Corporation, with disparate projections of key revenues and expenses. I browsed the Visit Laughlin website to get a sense of the place, but without being there, it’s impossible to visualize the existing town and the city that could be.

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Under its current city plan, Laughlin left its casinos to Clark County.

So I drove through the desert to a valley where the river splits Nevada and Arizona (and California is just over the hill). Turning onto the town’s main drag, I passed a bronze statue of founding father Don Laughlin. Hoping to see it up close, I hiked from the Visitors Center to the memorial site, past a Clark County sign warning me not to camp under its palm trees.

Then I drove the street from end to end, twice. All I saw were casinos, gas stations and an outlet mall with tinted windows. Under Laughlin’s current city plan, the casinos would remain—at least initially—an island of Clark County. So where was the other Laughlin, the one where people actually live? I searched the mall. It was filled with vacationing retirees buying discounted Jesus figurines, ninja star sets and Dairy Queen. At a souvenir shop, the town’s identity crisis was glaring. Every Laughlin postcard was a sunset over the casinos, though one aerial shot revealed a suburban grid. At a nearby Mobil Mart, I asked the clerk about the real town. Pointing at my granola bar, he said: “You’ll be through Laughlin before you even finish that.”

Laughlin is tiny indeed, but it has a beautiful library, a marina, a couple of business parks and neighborhoods filled with well-kept homes (and an epic collection of rusted metal lawn ornaments). Right on the edge is Gilligan’s, what appears to be the one and only local watering hole. Trying to ignore the metaphor of the S.S. Minnow on the wall, I drank Miller Lite and chatted with the bartender about the town she’s lived in since 1986. It’s hard to leave once you’re rooted, she said, but it’s a good place.

Everyone at the bar was a regular. They know each other by name and probably far beyond. I wanted to bring up the incorporation debate, but I couldn’t bring myself to ruin the sweet, nostalgic experience of kicking back with the locals on a Sunday, watching golf and catching up on the neighborhood news.

Laughlin is still proving itself, at least in the county’s eyes, though the commissioners expressed that they don’t want it to fail in its dream of incorporation—either by never getting the chance or by leaping without looking hard enough at the hurdles. If Laughlin does become a city, I sincerely hope it doesn’t lose its small-town soul.

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