Sin City's Identity Stripped by Recession

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- This is not just a place people are born and live. Las Vegas is an enterprise.

It is a deal people enter, a set of givens agreed upon: More is better. Biggest is best.

To live in Las Vegas is to stake your future on this enterprise -- for better or worse.

For the past 20 years, it has been for better. The unemployment rate was minuscule. Gleaming new casinos were built on "old" casinos like so many sandcastles on a beach. Hundreds of neat stucco houses promised a palm tree or a pool or both for nearly everyone with a paycheck.

In Las Vegas, average people are versed in the statistics that impress relatives from back East and testify to the success of this enterprise: 39 million visitors, almost 140,000 hotel rooms, 10 new schools a year. It was a place that not only believed its own hype, but depended on it.

And so, it has been a shock as, quietly and slowly, everything has changed.

Like many U.S. cities, Las Vegas is watching its economy reel. Home values have plummeted. Foreclosures have exploded. Unemployment is the highest it's been in at least 20 years.

For the first time in decades, the population has stopped growing. Casino projects are on hold. Planes full of free-spending tourists are landing with less frequency. Long the embodiment of American confidence, the city is now in limbo.

In Las Vegas, the economic mess is also an identity crisis.

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"Jackpot Town!" the headline read.

And above it was the smiling face of Jesse Grice. He was just 27, six years into his career as an Elvis impersonator. A young Elvis Presley. A fit, fresh, gold lame Elvis, on the cover of Time Magazine.

As he tells it now, even then in November 1998, he could not believe his luck. He'd loved this town since he was a teenager in Dallas, when his father, a salesman, sold enough Tropicana orange juice to win a trip to Sin City, then returned with tales of the fantasy land in the desert.

By the time Grice arrived in 1993, the fantasy had grown larger. The Mirage -- gambling tycoon Steve Wynn's new beacon of luxury -- had changed the definition of casino. The era of attractions, of pyramids and tigers and pirates and mini-European cites, had begun.

And yet, Grice was stunned to find the Elvis market untapped.

"I thought I was in heaven, man," he says in a voice that echoes The King's every inflection, only an octave higher. "Fifteen years ago, if you was going to struggle, this was the town to struggle in."

Grice became a character like the city itself. He held nothing back. He was hungry. He made friends easily and promoted himself with charm. He made lots of money, fast, calling himself Jesse Garon, the name of Elvis' stillborn twin brother. In 1996, Grice bought a Graceland -- a 4,000 square-foot rambling ranch with a squat palm tree out front and a kidney bean-shaped pool in back. He paid an ironworker to recreate the gates of Elvis' Memphis mansion.

"Las Vegas was beyond good to me," he says.

After years of seeing his home's value soar, Grice took a gamble, using equity in his house to invest in a downtown bar, hoping for long-term security.

But the gates of Graceland couldn't keep out a developing national recession.

As the bar's business slowed and he started to fall behind on mortgage payments, his Graceland began losing value.

The bank took it back in October. Grice sold his collection of memorabilia on the front lawn. He put the Graceland gates in storage and moved away.

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