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.

Now, in a city that's also changed, an older, rounder, jumpsuit-era Elvis sips a midday martini in his condominium. He's upbeat about living more simply, his new beginning, a new wedding chapel venture.

Still, he now says of the second-chance capital: "I think it's become an unforgiving town. I feel sorry for the fool who comes here to try to make it as an Elvis impersonator or anything else. It's just a tough town all round.

"Look how many years we were up, up, up, and the ride had to end at some point. Well, it just ended."

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Lavana Jackson -- mother of six, grandmother of 17 -- suffers no fools. She peers over the rim of her glasses with a face of sheer disbelief when asked a stupid question.

"We're feeling it. Oh, we're feeling it," she says.

Jackson is surrounded in racks of T-shirts piled with coffee mugs, snow globes, baseball caps, shot glasses and novelty license plates.

Lots of stuff, no one to buy it.

For the past seven years, Jackson has spent her days among the stuff at Convention Center Souvenirs on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip.

The megaresorts that drove the boom of the past decade -- The Mirage, MGM Grand, the Venetian -- are about a mile south. Here the clientele is a little rougher around the edges, the hotel rooms less expensive, the minimum bet at the blackjack tables lower.

But all that was changing, the captains of gambling in Las Vegas said a couple years back. There would be so much new development no part of the Strip would be left behind.

Wynn threw down the gantlet when he opened his sleek $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas in 2005.

It spurred a new wave of one-upmanship, a key impulse in the Las Vegas identity. MGM Mirage Inc. announced its $9.2 billion CityCenter project and billed it as the largest private construction project ever. Las Vegas Sands, owner of the Venetian, spent $1.9 billion on its Palazzo. Donald Trump built a taller condominium tower. Wynn built another hotel. The Cosmopolitan, the Fontainebleau, the Plaza, the billion-dollar projects could easily blur together.

Today, one piece of the seemingly boundless expansion stands outside Convention Center Souvenirs. It was to be Boyd Gaming's Echelon project. It promised 5,000 rooms in six hotels in a complex that would be lush with landscaping and luxury accommodations. All for a mere $4.8 billion.

The 50-year-old Stardust casino was imploded to make room, and construction rolled along for more than a year and nearly 12 stories -- until the credit markets choked. In August, Boyd executives abruptly put the enterprise on hold. Nearly 800 construction workers were left to find new work.

To Jackson it was an outrage.

On her smoke break, she looks out at seven frozen construction cranes hovering over a massive slumbering, concrete skeleton. It sits like a stopper on the flow of foot traffic outside the store.

Her hours have been cut back as business slumps.

"Our hope was that it would start up again, but look at it, it's just sitting there, rusting. At least when the Stardust was there, we made money," she said.

The 52-year-old has lived in Las Vegas and worked on the Strip most of her working life. She's moved away and come back. She got married, had children, left her husband and reunited with him. The constant was Las Vegas.

"In Las Vegas you could always get a job. A woman could take care of her children," she said, shaking the white beads of her cornrows in befuddlement. "I don't know what happened, but Vegas is really stressed out. People don't understand it and I don't either because Vegas has never been like this."

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Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and a longtime resident, agrees Las Vegas has never been like this.

Previous economic dips, one in the late 1990s and another after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were brief and largely confined to the tourism industry. In a very Las Vegas way, they were forgotten once the money began flowing again.

This one may be harder to forget.

This downturn already is longer and more pervasive, and it appears open-ended. It's devastated not just the tourism industry, but the state's only other major economic driver -- construction and development.

"This recession destroys the illusion of prosperity," Green says. "And I believe some of our prosperity was an illusion."

He describes Las Vegas' promise as an inversion of New York City's boast: "If you couldn't make it anywhere, you can make it here." But it has long fallen short on that deal for many.

Southern Nevada social services have struggled to keep pace with need. The state's suicide rate is twice the national rate. The city leads the country in percentage of teenage high school dropouts. It's among the highest in percentage of uninsured.

This recession is laying bare these shortcomings, Green said. There's no easy money to hide the gaps, no certainty how long the downturn will last, no clear idea what the new Las Vegas will look like.

"That creates a whole new culture here, I think," Green says, "one that I don't know that we're ready to deal with."

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When times were good, the buzz of a booming Las Vegas was a siren song for all types. Retirees, young families, Californians lured by low-taxes, East Coast natives lured by high temperatures. For years, Las Vegas sat near the top of lists of fastest growing cities.

Growth was a dinner party topic. Did you see that new shopping center opened? Have you been to the new casino?

Each opening came with jobs. Word traveled.

It went all the way to Atlantic City, once a Las Vegas rival, where a couple of card dealers, Donald "Butch" Youshaw and his girlfriend, Bernie Jones, heard the call.

"Come out West. Get a job, they're booming, they're hiring," they remember being told. "Casinos are going up, the housing market is going up."

In 2002, the couple drove across the country, towing his classic Mercedes Benz. Youshaw, along with his mother, a retired nurse, bought a three-bedroom stucco home. It had a fig tree in back and no stairs -- good for his sister, who uses a wheelchair and was expected to join them.

But casino jobs were harder to get than he anticipated. "It's all about who you know," he said. He knew no one.

Still, others seemed to be soaring. His neighbor was gobbling up investment properties as home values headed north. Youshaw imagined he might try his hand at real estate, but first he needed money to spruce up the home he already owned.

His mother saw an ad on television for a refinancing program. She called the number and got a new loan with ease and little clear explanation.

But the loan came with hidden fees and higher monthly payments, and Youshaw fell $25,000 in arrears before the bank foreclosed.

Stunned at how quickly his fortunes turned, Youshaw says, "I'm living like I did when I was 19."

Today he and Jones spend their days in a home they rent just blocks from the one he lost. Youshaw has pawned jewelry and even took out a payday loan at 200 percent interest to pay the gas bill.

Jones, who looks far younger than her 51 years, continues to look for casino work, though some have suggested she's just too old to be a cocktail waitress.

Speaking of Las Vegas now, Youshaw says, "It's not what they say. It's like a show. At the end of the day they roll up everything and take it away. Set's closed. Go.

"But I'm stuck. They got me here. I can't afford to move."

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There are plenty of men and women trying to revive the enterprise.

They include a handful of casino executives who spent the past decade consolidating and expanding their reach to Macau, Bahamas, Singapore but have recently been stopped cold by the economic freeze.

They are a small group of public officials who for years worked to enable growth in the desert, acquire the water needed to sustain it and green-light the developments that created jobs and profits. Today they figure out what budgets to cut.

And there are the guardians of Las Vegas' image, the ad execs tasked with making sure tourists still want to come here.

Among those is Terry Jicinsky, the senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which has a budget of nearly $220 million, funded by room taxes, and operates the nation's third largest convention center. The authority developed the "What happens here, stays here" ad campaign.

But as smaller numbers of visitors come -- off 10 percent in October, from a year earlier -- the marketers keep adjusting their pitch: casting Las Vegas as an easy last-minute destination, then as affordable, then as an escape for "crazy times."

But bad times? No one here planned for that.

"Because our growth cycle has been going on for 20 years, you know, for many people, myself included, that's a career. That is the entire length of your experience," Jicinsky says from his office above the convention center floor. "We have casino executives that started working in their 20s and 30s that are now in their 40s and 50s, where all they knew was double-digit growth year after year after year."

Jicinsky says he doesn't believe "What happens here" -- a seductive nudge toward indulgence during indulgent times -- is outdated. It will continue to define Las Vegas, he says. "Everyone could see themselves in a Las Vegas story."

As Jicinsky speaks, the bustle of the convention floor floats into his office. Today's convention, a gambling industry summit, has been full of glum news of suddenly frugal gamblers and tightfisted lenders.

Just now, aspiring bar bands are auditioning for club owners below. A woman's voice intrudes on Jicinsky's thoughts. "Chain, chain, chain ... chain of fools," she sings.

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