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Benjamin Spillman

Laughlin: Expanding horizons

23 June 2008

LAUGHLIN -- A swath of barren real estate roughly one-third the size of Summerlin will broaden the town of Laughlin's horizon far beyond the riverside casino resorts that define today's skyline, now that local leaders have wrested control of the land from the state of Nevada.

That's what Laughlin-area boosters are saying about 9,000 acres of Mojave Desert property the state recently handed over to Clark County for development.

The land, once embroiled in controversy and viewed as an obstacle to the town's expansion, is slated to become part of a master plan that will extend Laughlin's reach from Davis Dam to the California border.

Now the desert town of about 8,000 residents has a rare opportunity to reinvent itself in whatever form the community chooses.

"I think it will definitely turn into something, and it could carry our community all the way to the state line," said Don Laughlin, 77, who founded modern-day Laughlin in 1966. "I might not be around to see it."

There are no formal plans yet. But town leaders hope to enlist contributions from consultants and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who could help revive the momentum Laughlin lost in the 1990s when Arizona and California siphoned customers from its once burgeoning resorts.

The idea is for experts to work with community members to create a master plan, then sell off the land to private developers who can execute the vision.

"You can see the potential," said Debra March, executive director of UNLV's Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies. "I envision we are planning for future generations, it is not just for us."

The land is about 100 miles south of Las Vegas and 25 miles north of Needles, Calif., and Interstate 40.

The northern edge of the property lies at a bend on the Colorado River just south of town. On the west side of the Needles Highway, much of the property is on the waterfront until it reaches the northern boundary of the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation.

East of the highway, the property goes up a grade to the horizon with views of the river to the west. It reaches south to the border with California.

"It is no small effort so we want to be really careful that we do it right," Laughlin Town Manager Jacquelyne Brady said of the development opportunity. "We are open to decent proposals that will work, not some harebrained ideas."

March says it will take decades to fully develop the area once a master plan is in place. She is hopeful the community vision will include technology, alternative energy, homes, jobs and recreation components.

"Part of your strategy has to be job creation and probably green energy," she said. "If you create industries and you create employment, then you create housing demand."

It will also likely involve dispensing with the notion that Laughlin is nothing more than a struggling resort town baking away in the desert heat.

In 2005, developers in nearby Bullhead City, Ariz., opened Laughlin Ranch, a 12,000-acre planned community centered on an upscale golf course and pitched as a new dawn for development in the Laughlin area.

But the fortunes of the development faded with the housing market. In September, the Mohave Daily News reported the developers had filed for bankruptcy.

The golf course and community are still operating, but so far Laughlin Ranch hasn't lived up to the original vision.

Don Laughlin, who sold land to the project's developers but isn't involved in it, said problems reflect short-term economic cycles, not long-term prospects for the region.

Laughlin said developers built too many houses too quickly and were unprepared when the real estate market tanked.

"They did good for a long time. They just got going so fast they outran their bankroll," Laughlin said. "It just kind of all caught up with them at the same time."

If anyone has an eye for the potential of the town's future it would be the former Las Vegas casino owner and Minnesota transplant who founded it.

In 1964 Laughlin flew over a dusty mining settlement called South Point and envisioned a bustling desert resort along the shimmering water of the Colorado River.

By 1968 there were three casinos, including a 14-story high-rise. By 1990, the Nevada community of Laughlin was home to nine resorts and it was attracting millions of visitors annually.

Today the resorts are losing ground to tribal casinos that divert core customers from Southern California. And town leaders, searching for a new vision for the future, are looking south down the Needles Highway.

"I don't think anybody is going to go broke. But I don't think you will see any more casino development," Laughlin said.

Instead, local leaders see the land as an opportunity to start the town's biggest transformation since Laughlin opened his Riverside Resort with 98-cent chicken dinners, 12 slot machines and two live gambling tables.

"The future development of Laughlin is very much at stake," Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said.

He was one of several people with Laughlin ties that pressured the state to hand over the land, free of charge, to Clark County, an exchange that occurred at the end of the 2007 legislative session.

The property had been in the hands of the Colorado River Commission since the 1970s and in recent years the agency's role as a landowner became embroiled in controversy.

Local leaders in Laughlin, frustrated over development obstacles they attributed to the community being hemmed in by property under state and federal control, confronted the Colorado River Commission.

A major issue was $13 million in proceeds from the commission's sale of 110 acres of riverfront property to developers.

Locals were angry the commission used $5 million from the sale to pay off a debt. They said a state law required proceeds from the sale to go toward community infrastructure in Laughlin.

To add insult to injury, the developers who bought the land not only put it up for sale shortly thereafter, they closed a nearby golf course they had told townspeople was to be part of an upscale resort development.

"Now we no longer have a golf course and, no, they didn't put any homes in," Brady said. "It really disappointed a lot of people in town."

The uproar prompted renewed efforts to wrest away control of the Colorado River Commission's property and put it in local hands, something that had been discussed for years but never acted on.

"It was more of a state of inertia, nobody thought there was a reason to transfer it before," Woodbury said.

The effort culminated in Carson City with approval of a bill by state Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, that put the commission's 9,000 acres and $9.25 million in proceeds from earlier land sales in the hands of Clark County.

Woodbury and Brady said they still believe Laughlin is due the $5 million.

But George Caan, executive director of the Colorado River Commission, said he believes the land transfer settled the dispute.

He also said the commission was happy to hand over the land, considering it lacks the money or expertise to solicit land planners, architects and engineers or execute a community master plan.

"The state's responsibility over that land was more of an anachronism over the years," Caan said.