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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Casino Workers Find a Home

18 November 2004

By Liz Benston, Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS -- In the shadow of the Desperado roller coaster that winds around the Buffalo Bill's hotel and casino in Primm, a virtual city of 52 beige stucco buildings spreads out into a corner of the desert. The aptly named Desert Oasis apartment complex is home to Raul Trejo, an information technology supervisor who has worked for the Primm Valley Resorts company for more than 12 years.

Trejo pays about $140 per month for a four-bedroom apartment he shares with three friends, which includes utilities and cable television. The apartment came furnished and isn't far from a heated pool and clubhouse with a workout room, basketball court, billiard tables, video games, TV room and grocery store.

Not everyone can live at Desert Oasis. The complex, which officially opens its last building to renters today, is available only to employees of Primm Valley, an MGM Mirage subsidiary that owns the Buffalo Bill's, Primm Valley Resort and Casino and Whiskey Pete's properties in Primm. The first gambling town for Californians traveling east into Nevada, Primm is about 40 miles from Las Vegas.

"When I tell people what I pay in rent they're in shock," said Trejo, 36. "They want to know what company is offering those benefits and how they can work there."

Desert Oasis has been long in the making. Shortly after MGM Mirage acquired the Primm properties in 1999, providing desirable employee housing "quickly became a priority," Primm Valley Resorts President and Chief Operating Officer Renee West said.

The $22 million project consists of units for about 650 people, from studios to four-bedroom apartments. Rents are subsidized by MGM Mirage and range from $140 a month per person in a four-bedroom apartment to $498 a month for a one-bedroom unit.

The complex is about 85 percent sold out and is expected to be fully sold by the end of the year, said Manny Casillas, the on-site property manager. The first tenants moved in around May.

The gated community replaces a smaller, aging apartment complex that could accommodate about 400 people in shared units. It was built atop an RV park for customers and employees. A small portion of the RV park for employees remains, though the company intends to build a replacement park for customers.

Living a stone's throw from work is a boon for Trejo, who rolls out of bed at 7:30 a.m. in time for work at 8 a.m. Nor does he mind the solitude of the small casino town, where workers who relocate from Las Vegas find dramatically slashed car insurance rates and gas costs. Trejo gets to visit his daughter and mother in Las Vegas on weekends, where he goes to shop or meet friends.

The money Trejo has saved on rent means he can allocate about 30 percent of his paycheck to the company 401(k) plan and buy more things for his daughter.

Tewodros "Teddy" Abate, 30, a slot technician who lives near Trejo at Desert Oasis, bought a Toyota SUV with the money he saved on rent.

Abate, a six-year employee at Primm Valley, said he used to spend about half of his paycheck on rent in Las Vegas.

Like Trejo, his car insurance fell by more than half when he moved to Primm. In his free time, he visits his girlfriend and family in Las Vegas.

Sometimes he checks out the pool.

"The pool is heated here. In Vegas the (apartment pool) wasn't heated and it was even closed in the summer."

The apartment complex is just the latest perk Primm Valley has offered employees over the years to compete with companies in Las Vegas.

The company offers training for higher-paying jobs and paid education off the job. Employees receive discounts on gas and $2.50 admission to new releases at the Buffalo Bill's movie theater, among other things.

While workers in Las Vegas like being at the center of the action, Primm has the advantage of being able to recruit workers who can be promoted to positions in Las Vegas and beyond within the MGM Mirage empire, West said.

For the majority of employees who still commute from Las Vegas, Primm Valley expects to upgrade its subsidized bus transportation program for workers by the end of the year.

The company now uses a contractor to bus workers from Las Vegas to Primm and back each day. The fleet of 11 buses operate 20 hours a day, making about 5,000 round trips per week. About 1,200 of Primm Valley's 3,000 or so employees use the service.

West said that number is expected to spike in a few weeks when the company brings the transportation service in-house, buying and operating its own fleet of buses.

The company can operate the buses more efficiently and can offer more flexible schedules than a contractor can, West said. The company also hopes to increase the number of buses in the fleet.

"These programs allow us to recruit new employees who might have opted to work in Las Vegas or elsewhere if we didn't provide unique programs such as housing, transportation and a full roster of training and advancement opportunities," West said.

Not that the company is hurting for hires. Retention is at an all-time high and business at stateline is good, competition from tribal casinos notwithstanding, she said.

Trejo said he is grateful for his living arrangements.

"I know people who are spending $200 to $300 in utilities, while the average home in Las Vegas is something like $330,000," he said. "I'm a very happy man."