Sin City's Identity Stripped by Recession

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.

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