- Associated Press - Friday, February 21, 2020

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Inside the Little Vegas Chapel, Amanda Schild was smiling in her wedding dress, ready to grab pizza and celebrate her nuptials with husband Jordan Williams.

There was no drive-thru window or Elvis Presley impersonator. But the newlyweds had their photos taken in front of the chapel’s version of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

Williams, 30, acknowledged Las Vegas has the stigma of a place to “get wasted and get married and then get divorced the next day.”

But Schild, 33, called it affordable and convenient. Plus, they’ve been together for nine years and have three children.

“I don’t like the details of planning a big wedding,” Schild told the Las Vegas Review-Journal . “That’s just not for me.”

Tourists and Nevada residents are making what one expert calls “smarter marriage choices,” including dating longer and ensuring financial stability before getting married.

The shift has fueled a decline in marriage rates across the country and in Las Vegas, where weddings are a $2.5 billion industry.

The Review-Journal reported the industry peaked at $3.1 billion in 2004, and Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya, the elected official overseeing Las Vegas marriage licenses, said the 71,800 permits issued in 2019 was down nearly 44% from a peak of 128,000 in 2004.

“We have been seen as ‘The Hangover,’ and that’s not a great brand,” Goya said of the 2009 film comedy. “It’s not a place you want to emulate to go get married. So, what we’re seeing this year is we have really turned around our image.”

Nevada’s marriage rate, measured as the number of new marriages per 1,000 people, dropped to 26.7 in 2018, the lowest since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began providing marriage rate figures in 1990.

At the same time, experts said marriages may last longer and divorces may be fewer.

“Marriage used to be something that people did when they were younger and just getting started,” said Karen Guzzo, professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. “Now … it’s the last thing you do when you are becoming an adult - what we call like a capstone or an achievement.”

Guzzo called it likely that people are opting to start careers first, and to live with their partner to test the waters.

Patrick McFarland, 45, and Melissa Hill, 50, dated for seven years and lived together before deciding to tie the knot recently at the Little Church of the West while visiting Las Vegas from Florida.

“We did the career (first), as well as bought our first house three years ago,” Hill said, “so the evolution is where are we in the next stage.”

University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen, who released a study last year on divorce trends from 2008 to 2017, said couples who wait longer are less likely to get divorced.

“That rising age of marriage is definitely a factor in the falling divorce rate,” he said. “The other thing that goes along with that is higher education. So there’s more people who are not getting married before or until they have completed a college degree.”

The divorce and annulments rate in the U.S. fell to 2.9 per 1,000 people in 2018, marking a consistent decline since 2000, when the divorce rate was 4.0, according to the CDC. In Nevada, the marriage failure rate was cut more than half, to 4.4 from a high of 9.9 in 2000.

“Essentially, marriage is becoming more of an elite institution,” Cohen said. “It sort of indicates that marriages is becoming more rarefied. It’s more of a select population that enters into marriage and they enter into a more stable marriage.”

Las Vegas Wedding Chamber of Commerce President Jodi Harris said the nearly 100-member group launched a partnership in March 2016 with the Clark County clerk’s office and the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority to promote Las Vegas wedding tourism.

Goya, who also serves on the wedding chamber board, said the Nevada State History Museum plans a wedding retrospective to show how Vegas became a marriage destination, as well as creating wedding-themed walking tours. The tourism authority also plans a Las Vegas wedding photo contest.

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz has proposed designating a portion of Las Vegas Boulevard as a “Wedding Way” tourist attraction, including a marriage walk of fame.

The city also wants wedding chapels to be included in the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency external renovation visual improvement program, Diaz said.

Wedding chapels had been categorized along with nightclubs, strip clubs and bars - excluded from redevelopment funds.

Donne Kerestic, Chapel of the Flowers owner and chief executive, said marriage venue renovations aim to boost Las Vegas’ marriage rate by building “something so unique” that “you can only see in Vegas.”

Little Vegas Chapel owner Michael Kelly predicted that Las Vegas will remain a wedding destination because it’s affordable and couples have to jump through fewer hoops to get married.

“When you need something done quickly and you want it done right and you want it done professionally - that’s how I see Las Vegas weddings,” he said. “They come to Vegas and they think, ‘Hey, I get a vacation. I get a honeymoon and it’s a fraction of the cost of doing it back home.’ It’s just so much easier.”

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