Frankenstein casinos and the pre-assigned blame game


RENO - How quickly the hot and sexy prosperity of summer morphed into the dead casinos of winter. Perhaps it was always in the cards.

The Hot August Nights riot took place right in front of the suddenly-closed Riverboat Hotel-Casino.

It was thus fitting that last Monday's sudden death of downtown's most Frankensteinian gambling operation launched a torrent of dire diagnoses about the terminal condition of more than a few local gambling enterprises.

The Riverboat was cobbled together from two older casinos, the Gold Dust and Onslow. The former casino area of the latter is now a dollar store.

The Gold Dust was stitched from pieces acquired by second-generation entrepreneur John Cavanaugh, Jr. He took advantage of a loophole in Reno city code which allowed hotels with at least 100 rooms to qualify for an unlimited gaming license. Mr. Cavanaugh took two or three flea-trap hotels and cut some rooms into bathless triangles to meet the minimum.

The Gold Dust debuted to much fanfare during the fabled MGM Grand euphoria of 1977-78 when eight hotel-casinos opened within just a few months of each other.

Bill Harrah said at the time that he didn't think the town could handle eight new clubs. A decade or so later, eight casinos were dark, a zero-sum game.

Here's the current body count, in alphabetical order: Harolds, Holiday, Horseshoe, Kings Inn, Mapes, Nevada Club, Onslow, Riverboat, Riverside, Virginian. That's 10, with more in the pipeline rumored as considering either closure or conversion to timeshares.

As my longtime source Casino Throat recently said, "Reno is changing from a gambling town to a town with gambling."

You and I have been bled white by public officials and private interests trying to stem the tide.

For the past four decades, the citizens of Reno, Sparks and Las Vegas have paid through the nose and every other orifice to subsidize the gambling-industrial complex with our taxes.

The room tax, which was supposed to pay for parks and recreation, has largely gone to casino advertising and promotion. (See the Barbwires of 5-10-98 and 3-23-97.)

The Washoe County Commission just raised sales taxes without voter consent in order to pay for the 2.1 mile Union Pacific rail trench through downtown Reno. (See the Barbwires of 11-29-98 and 9-14-97.) Motorists across the nation pay less than a dollar a gallon for gas, but not Washoe County residents, long stuck with some of the highest fuel taxes in the country.

Reno, Sparks and Las Vegas downtown property levies have been perverted for redevelopment projects farcical on their face (See the Barbwires of 5-10-98 and 3-23-97.) Why use tax money to subsidize corporations to build blockhouses on the prettiest riverfront park property we have?

Go ask Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin. I can't explain it. Hizzoner himself has admitted that the new riverfront movie theater will be hard pressed to make a profit, thus jeopardizing repayment of the city's multi-million dollar subsidy. (See the Barbwire of 11-2-97.)

But hope springs eternal. I am pleased to report that after all these years of ignoring my advice, the gambling-industrial complex is now listening. In its darkest hour, the brahmins of the bistros have finally taken to heart something I promulgated almost a decade ago.

THE DOCTRINE OF PRE-ASSIGNED BLAME. Because people are people, there will always be screwups. The weaker among us will always want to blame someone else. Politicians are masters of the art.

I submit that a socialistic spreading of the blame is only good management. It's also consistent with the ethics of modern capitalism. This is just how the international banks cover their asses when loans to dictatorships go sour.

To paraphrase former Clinton economic advisor Laura Tyson, they want to privatize the profit but socialize the risk. In other words, taxpayers pay for their bad decisions. They keep everything from the good ones.

In a corporate setting, the pre-assigned blame game requires only a calendar. Each employee gets one day a month when everything is his or her fault. When something blows up, you just look at the date to find out who to blame. Clean, clear, simple.

On the statewide level, that's too limited, so here's the public version. Nevada specializes in special events like the 1950s revival Hot August Nights (and attendant riots), so special events can readily shoulder the blame.

Just in time for the Riverboat closure came the passage of California Proposition 5. Sometime in the next three, five or 10 years, if it survives court challenges, Prop. 5 may facilitate expansion of gambling on California Indian reservations.

But blame gamers don't need to wait. Nevada casino robber barons already blame the Indians for Frankenstein's stitches coming loose. The Riverboat used Prop. 5 as a way to close without notice and evade federal law, thus cutting 375 workers out of two month's pay.

(Go to the 12-2-98 Barbwire to view the impact of Daily Sparks Tribune reporter Willie Albright's revelation that the Riverboat may have violated federal labor law. Any ex-employee interested in filing legal action should contact attorney Michael Langton at 775-329-7557.

Gov-elect Kenny Guinn has already received his marching orders: Use fear of Prop. 5 to defeat State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, and his bill to raise taxes on mega-casinos. Neal subscribes to the revolutionary concept that those who cause urban growth should pay a fair share toward the impacts.

Others may be more creative where the blame game is concerned.

Dennis Rodman can blame fear of Indian gaming as impelling him into the arms of that ghastly woman he woke up married to.

Washoe County voter registrar Laura Dancer can blame the Indians for recent ballot counting snafus. Washoe DA Bulletdome Gammick can blame them redskins for legalizing medical marijuana, the first step down the path toward beer addiction.

Indians can be blamed for the rains and floods of 1997. UNLV's 0-11 football team. UNR football players using stolen phonecards. Hell, even Mike Tyson's hunger for earlobes.

Free Iron Mike! He was under the influence of an Indian gambling rain dance. Lousy schools? Dumb kids? Pregnant teens? Potholes? Corporate mergers? Monica Lewinsky?

Blame the greedy California Indians and we don't have to worry about taking responsibility for our own actions ever again.

Keep hope alive.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano, a 30-year Nevadan, is a member of CWA Local 9413 and editor of He was gubernatorial campaign manager for State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks Tribune since 1988, where an earlier version of this column was originally published 12/6/98.

Top of the Page

This site created and maintained by Deciding Factors
Click here for inclusion on our mailing lists.