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Chris Jones

Bargain Getaway: Destination Mesquite

12 January 2004

It wasn't supposed to end up like this.

Nearly one year ago, the Virgin River resort town of Mesquite had just ended a 12-month period that saw its year-over-year visitor volume dip by nearly 3 percent despite a significant increase in traffic along the vital Interstate 15 corridor near the Nevada-Arizona-Utah border.

The owners of the town's newest and best golf resort were engaged in a nasty bankruptcy dispute, while people throughout the West struggled to make sense of a drug-fueled Jan. 22 murder of a 3-year-old girl whose 10-year-old sister was left partially paralyzed by a stabbing attack that took place as their mother gambled the night away at a nearby casino.

Despite such troubling beginnings, a funny thing happened on Mesquite's path to tourism-realm desolation.

Travelers responded to the town's low-cost amenities and top-quality spas and golf resorts. A growing number of U.S. and international businesses brought their employees on team-building exercises held in Mesquite's hotels, and by fall the quiet town of approximately 13,300 residents was on its way to double-digit tourism growth that would likely be envied by most other small Nevada gaming destinations.

Through October, the most recent data available, Mesquite last year reported more than 1.45 million visitors, up 10.2 percent from the same period in 2002. During the same period, Las Vegas' visitor volume was up just 1 percent, while Laughlin reported a 1.6 percent decrease.

Though its annual total will pale in significance with Las Vegas' projected 35 million-plus annual visitors for 2003 and will be roughly one-third the size of Laughlin's typical yearly total of about 4.5 million guests, Mesquite's success last year was remarkable given a relatively poor travel environment coupled with no new resorts and just a moderate 200-room increase in the town's hotel inventory.

City Manager Bryan Montgomery compared Mesquite's recent resurgence with that of a maturing teenager who's finally reached adulthood. More people have noticed the town and now take its resort status seriously, he said.

"There's an evolution with any city; you kind of pass through a puberty stage and adolescence before you hit your prime," Montgomery said. "Mesquite is finally hitting the radar screen as a destination for golf, gaming and its spa atmosphere.

"As we grow as a city, more people become aware of us and what is here. They like it as an alternative to the faster pace of Las Vegas because (Mesquite) is out of the rat race."

Much of Mesquite's success can be traced to its long-standing appeal as a weekend getaway spot for Las Vegas-area residents.

In 1976, gaming industry pioneer William "Si" Redd bought a small truck stop in the then-800 resident town and turned that site into the Peppermill Resort, which he later rechristened Si Redd's Oasis. In the late 1980s, Redd stepped away from his Reno-based International Game Technology empire and devoted most of his energies to making Mesquite a thriving boomtown.

Redd, who died in October, sold the Oasis in 2001 to the four Black brothers of Las Vegas, who also own the Virgin River, CasaBlanca and the casino-less Virgin River Convention Center (formerly Mesquite Star) properties in Mesquite. A fifth hotel-casino, the Eureka, is owned by the Lee family of Las Vegas.

Still, Redd's simple formula remains in place today: provide low-cost golf, hotel and spa packages to residents of nearby towns, as well as motorists passing through the quiet town 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Such offerings remain a town staple to this day, though Las Vegas is no longer Mesquite's leading source of customers.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports nearly 33 percent of Mesquite's 1.57 million visitors in 2002 came from Utah, which ranked well ahead of the Las Vegas Valley (10 percent), California (9 percent) and Arizona (3 percent).

Marty Rapson, who serves as marketing director for four Mesquite resorts jointly owned by the Black brothers, isn't surprised that Mesquite draws from a wider customer pool. She called Mesquite "the Palm Springs of Nevada" and said it offers much more than casinos.

"We have everything that Vegas has, but the majority of our customers tell us they come here for the customer service they can no longer get there," she said. "We have top-notch golf courses and Vegas-style gambling but are still small enough that people feel comfortable here."

The convention authority, through Las Vegas-based advertising agency R&R Partners, has also sponsored a 2-year-old marketing campaign called "Escape Momentarily," account director Julie Stipe said.

She said the convention authority spends about $350,000 a year on television, print and radio spots promoting Mesquite as a quick and easy weekend getaway, particularly for golf and spa enthusiasts.

Such quick-hitting strategies, including radio ads aimed at highway travelers, make sense for Mesquite, she added, because most people who make the decision to visit there do so the week they travel.

Much of Mesquite's recent renaissance stems from its thriving golf industry, sources close to the community said. The town boasts five 18-hole golf courses, highlighted by Wolf Creek at Paradise Canyon, which Golf Digest magazine recently named one of the top three new upscale public courses in the United States.

The Hamilton Ranch Golf Resort in nearby Beaver Dam, Ariz., adds another 18-hole option, and 36 holes are under construction as Mesquite looks to further improve its reputation among duffers and pros worldwide, Montgomery said.

The annual Re/Max World Long Drive Championship, held in Mesquite each October since 1997, has also provided a big lift for the area's golf industry and economy at large. Last month, cable networks ESPN and ESPN2 telecast nearly 4 1/2 hours of the event.

"The biggest problem with Mesquite is people haven't heard of it," Rapson said. "Anytime you can get national exposure to develop more of an awareness, especially through golf, it helps."

The town has also worked to promote its golf industry through its Golf Mesquite program, which lures players from nearby areas with promises of cooler weather than can be found in Las Vegas during the summer, and warmer playing conditions than Utah can offer in wintertime.

"That program is getting the word out to markets we've previously overlooked," Rapson said.

Rapson said corporate groups have also discovered Mesquite as a popular "team building" venue for business gatherings, much like Las Vegas. In some cases, she said her town even tops its larger neighbor, which is one of the top convention destinations in the world.

"People can bring their company up here and know they won't lose their employees among 80,000 other people on the Strip," Rapson said. "(Business travelers) keep running into each other here, which makes for a better atmosphere for team-building and getting to know each other outside work.

"In Vegas, there are so many distractions that you may not even see others (from a group) outside of meetings. Here, you can't help but see each other because it's not that big."

Outside the tourism industry, Montgomery said, new construction projects are also pushing Mesquite's economy forward.

A 29-bed hospital, Mesa View Regional, is scheduled to open this summer and has already fueled new residential growth, he said, as has the ongoing development of nearly 8,000 acres the city recently acquired from the Bureau of Land Management.