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Arnold M. Knightly

Oasis closure comes at bad time

8 December 2008

MESQUITE, Nevada --In her six years as director of Virgin Valley Family Services, Shawn Hotch had never seen anything like what greeted her when she arrived at work Tuesday morning.

"It looked like a DMV line," Hotch said about the crowd that had formed outside the nonprofit's tiny Mesquite office by 8 a.m., an hour before the office opened.

The people waiting to get inside were all from the Black Gaming's Oasis hotel-casino, which announced Monday that it was laying off 500 workers while it suspends operations of the resort's casino and restaurants. Most of the property's hotel rooms were closed beginning Friday.

"This is frightening because this is just Mesquite," said Hotch, who oversees an office that helps families weed through unemployment applications, food stamp applications and other social services.

She and the office's one caseworker saw 60 people Tuesday, although Hotch said other people saw the line Tuesday morning and left. On a normal busy day the office handles about 20 people.

David Bly, editor and general manager of the twice-weekly local newspaper, Desert Valley Times, said the community was shocked by the announcement by Black Gaming, the city's largest employer.

"Everybody's trying to figure out what it will mean," Bly said. "What will this do to business? Will this be a spiral downward or will people rally and unite the community?"

City government, local churches and nonprofits are rallying to help the city of 20,000 deal with what the mayor described on Thursday as an "unprecedented event that has people really fearful."

"Our community is fairly small so this is something that everyone is talking about," Mayor Susan Holecheck said. "What are we going to do? How does it affect other businesses? What about these families that aren't going to have as enjoyable a Christmas?"

Holecheck has been in contact with state unemployment officials about traveling the 80 miles northeast on Interstate 15 from Las Vegas to help the affected workers with claims.

Mesquite Stake President Craig Hafen said Mormon Church leaders are pushing a monthly meeting up to Sunday to discuss the layoffs.

"We're very concerned about people's well-being," Hafen said.

Hotch believes the layoffs will cost the city some families.

"There is no way that those 500 people can go somewhere else in Mesquite and get a job," he explained. "It's hard enough for anybody to find one, let alone so many people."

If families do have to leave the city, more job losses could follow.

Holecheck noted that the area could lose teachers if families have to pull students out of school to move to new jobs.

The Oasis has been winding down operations since the announcement was made Monday.

The casino's 27 table games were shut down then, and on Thursday, slot technicians began removing money and shutting down a few slot machines. The restaurants also were slowly winding down operations Thursday.

After Friday, the property will maintain a block of 100 of the Oasis' 900 rooms for walk-in customers. The Denny's, which is near the casino but is owned by an outside company, will also remain open, Marty Rapson, Black Gaming's vice president of marketing, said Thursday.

There were no signs hanging advising customers about the closures, but long-time Oasis workers chatted with frequent customers about the uncertainty that awaited them once they finished their shifts Friday.

Workers, however, were reluctant to talk to the media for fear of not being brought back if the hotel-casino should reopen or jobs become available at the company's other two Mesquite properties -- Virgin River and the CasaBlanca. The company said all the laid-off workers have been put on a list to be rehired when, or if, the property increases operations.

Two workers quoted in the Mesquite paper's Friday edition declined to use their real names.

"They don't want to go on the record," said Bly, who came to Mesquite from Calgary, Ontario, in 2006. "And that's part of the story."

Despite the layoffs this week, there is still a feeling of optimism that the small town will rally.

"Five hundred jobs in a town this size is a disaster," Bly said. "Also, at a town this size people can help each other. There's a good spirit of people saying let's do something, let's stick together, help each other.