- Associated Press - Friday, March 21, 2014

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Mary Jo Behnke was sitting on a bench outside a casino here before her flight home to frozen Wisconsin. She wanted to soak up the sun, but she also couldn’t think of much else to do, as the gaming-oriented town can seem a little one-dimensional sometimes.

Shirley Parke, owner of Laughlin River Tours, had such a steep drop in business that she sold one of her tour boats a few years ago and has come close to shutting down.

Laughlin - an unincorporated town of 7,300 - is about 100 miles south of Las Vegas and popular with bargain-hunting retirees who drive in for sometimes months-long getaways to the region. The town, with nine casino-resorts clustered along the banks of the Colorado River, lured 2 million visitors last year and generated $455 million in gambling revenue.

But tourism, the only major industry in Laughlin, has been declining for years, even as Las Vegas bounces back and Mesquite, another small resort destination in the region, stabilized.

Laughlin’s annual visitor volume has fallen 60 percent from 5 million about 15 years ago. Gambling revenue rose to $631 million in 2007 but has dropped every year since.

In Las Vegas, visitor levels fell after the economy collapsed but have rebounded and surpassed the boom years, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Mesquite’s tourism and gambling action fell hard during the downturn, as well. The community still isn’t close to the boom years, but it hasn’t seen steady declines like in Laughlin.

Laughlin executives are trying to turn things around with some casino and hotel renovations and a new events center. Dean DiLullo, for one, is bullish.

The CEO of Reno-based M1 Gaming, he tried to buy Laughlin’s River Palms casino last year for $7 million cash from investor Carl Icahn’s Tropicana Entertainment, but the deal fell through. DiLullo still wants to own a property here.

He views Laughlin as a true gambling town, more similar to downtown Las Vegas than the glitzy Strip. Visitors come to Laughlin with a bigger gambling budget than in Las Vegas, and they sit at the slots for hours on end.

“It’s a pretty cool town,” DiLullo said, “and I’m pretty much going to be the most enthusiastic person about Laughlin you’ve ever talked to.”

There are plenty of reasons for the sluggishness.

For the most part, Laughlin’s tourists are retirees from Southern California, Arizona, the Midwest and Canada who drive to town, often in their RVs. When gas prices go up, as they have in recent years, tourism slows.

Laughlin offers gambling, outdoor recreation, some concerts and events, and cheap food and lodging, but there doesn’t seem to be much else. Moreover, it’s not easy to get there.

“It’s not on the way to anywhere,” said Parke, the tour operator.

The resort corridor is about 30 miles from the nearest interstate. The closest airport, across the river in Bullhead City, Ariz., has chartered flights for two casinos but no regularly scheduled service. Getting to Laughlin takes time and effort, so there are plenty of reasons to go elsewhere.

And lately, those options have been expanding, thanks in no small part to the growth of the Las Vegas Strip and Indian casinos, which have poached people who only go to Laughlin for gambling and now have casinos closer to home.

There’s even a tribal casino in Laughlin, the Avi, which opened in the mid-1990s south of the resort corridor, where it intercepts drivers from Southern California and Arizona.

Meanwhile, a new resort hasn’t been built in Laughlin’s tourism corridor in at least 20 years. The existing hotels don’t look decrepit, but compared with Las Vegas’ newer, flashier properties, they seem dated.

Parke, who moved to the Laughlin area in 1988, works across the street from the Pioneer, a Western-themed resort that opened in the 1980s, when most casinos in town were built.

“It hasn’t changed since we moved here,” she said of the Pioneer. “I’m not sure it’s been painted.”

In Las Vegas, fewer people are gambling each year as they focus on shopping, nightclubs and restaurants. But in Laughlin, almost all visitors come to win.

In 2012, nearly 100 percent of tourists in Laughlin gambled while there, and they had a gambling budget of about $566 each, according to GLS Research. In Las Vegas, 72 percent of visitors gambled, with a budget of $485.

The visitors also are much older. In Las Vegas, they are an average 45 years old, and just 19 percent of the tourist base is retired. In Laughlin, visitors are an average 63 years old, and 67 percent are retired.

“No nightlife club crowd, clearly,” said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, whose district includes Laughlin.

Still, visitors enjoy Laughlin, which has a quiet, scenic atmosphere, and they keep coming back.

“It’s more laid-back than Vegas,” said Myrna Robertson of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who has been visiting with her husband, George, on and off for the past 15 years in their RV.

Overall, though, tourism has been declining. As MJ Smith sees it, one key to boosting business is big-league entertainment.

Smith, executive director of the Laughlin Tourism Commission, said the town gets a surge of visitors and gambling revenue in connection with big events, including headliners, who usually charge cheaper prices in Laughlin than in other locations.

Country music star Toby Keith, for instance, played in October at the Laughlin Amphitheater and sold all 8,600 tickets. The show’s attendees stayed an average two nights in town and gambled $3.1 million, according to data provided by Smith.

The events business could soon get bigger. Marnell Gaming, owner of the Colorado Belle and Edgewater resorts in Laughlin, developed the Laughlin Event Center, which held its first event March 8, Championship Bull Riding.

To boost business in Laughlin, the town also needs regular air service, Smith and others say. Republic Airways and Sun Country Airlines offer chartered flights for Harrah’s Laughlin and the Riverside, respectively, shuttling passengers to and from Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport. About 228,000 passengers flew in and out of the airport last year, up 32 percent from 2003, according to LVCVA data.

But most people get there by car, bus or RV. In 2012, 88 percent of Laughlin’s visitors drove in, compared with 57 percent in Las Vegas, GLS Research found.

“We have to make it easy for them to get here,” Smith said.

Airport officials have been working for years to lure regular service, airport director Jeremy Keating said.

Laughlin is close enough to Las Vegas that people regularly drive there to use McCarran International Airport but too small to attract carriers for itself.

“We’re kind of in a tough spot here,” he said.

___

Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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