Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2018

Currently: 64° — Complete forecast

Fast-growing town brings retirees, gamblers to desert

Newly retired and feeling restless, Richard Campbell left his Connecticut home in late 1997, climbed into his car and headed West.

"I wanted warm weather, and I wanted to be around casinos," he said. Campbell was on his way to Las Vegas when he came upon this little boomtown on the Arizona border. He pulled off the interstate and rented an apartment. Sixteen months later, he is still here.

"The pace is nice and slow. It's a small-town atmosphere, but it still has the excitement (of gambling)," said the 52-year-old, eyeing a televised horse race from the sports book at the CasaBlanca hotel. "And here you have all the seasons. You're close enough to Utah that you have snow."

At the rate it is growing, Mesquite may not have a small-town atmosphere for long. This former farming and mining hamlet on the banks of the Virgin River is Nevada's fastest-growing small town. Nine years ago its population was less than 2,000; today, Mesquite has 13,500 residents and 200 more arrive every month.

What is sparking this modern-day Gold Rush? Golf, gambling and good weather. Mesquite boasts 310 days of annual sunshine, with average high temperatures rarely dipping below 60. Its five casinos lure low rollers with nickel slots and $2 blackjack tables -- endangered species at the increasingly ritzy hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. Two of its hotels feature full-service spas offering facials, mud baths and massages. And with three 18-hole and two 9-hole courses -- one of them designed by Arnold Palmer -- Mesquite has become a miniature golf mecca.

These attractions also draw cold-weather vacationers from Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado and especially Utah -- whose border is just 30 miles to the northeast. Five hours' drive south of Salt Lake City, Mesquite is consistently 15 to 20 degrees warmer than the Wasatch Front. Its proximity, manageable size and cheap rooms make it a winter alternative to Las Vegas for many Utahns weary of scraping ice from their windshields.

"It's a good stopping point," said Troy Cude of Sandy, visiting Mesquite with his wife and their five children on their way home from a Disneyland vacation. The family broke up the 10-hour drive by staying over in Mesquite each way. "We'd much rather stay here than Vegas," he said. "It's quieter. It's right off the freeway. You don't have the (crowds) or the traffic."

A recent survey shows 88 percent of Mesquite's visitors gamble while they are here. How convenient, then, that Utah is one of only two states in the nation with no legalized gambling. After Wendover, Mesquite offers most Utahns -- even low rollers like Lois Brown -- their nearest casino fix.

"We just play the nickels," said Brown, wandering through the slot machines at the Oasis casino with a large cupful of coins. She and her husband live in Provo but spend their winters at an RV park in St. George. The Browns used to go to Las Vegas to play the slots, but not anymore. "It's much closer here," she said.

Although Mesquite was founded more than a century ago, it remained a slumbering desert town until the early 1980s, when video poker king Si Redd built his Peppermill resort there. Early settlers grew cotton, wheat and alfalfa along the meandering Virgin River -- the same water source that carved the towering cliffs of Zion National Park. Redd looked at little Mesquite and saw its potential not in water but in a ribbon of asphalt called Interstate 15.

Mesquite lies almost equidistant from Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, and halfway between Las Vegas and Zion. Unlike in traffic-choked Vegas -- America's fastest-growing large city -- motorists can pull off the highway here and within 10 minutes dip their toes in their hotel pool.

The Peppermill became the Oasis and remained Mesquite's only hotel until 1990, when the Virgin River opened on the other end of town. In 1995 former talk show king Merv Griffin opened his $80 million Players Island resort -- complete with landscaped swimming pools, a ritzy restaurant and a 425-seat theater with a splashy, Vegas-style revue. Griffin sold the property two years later -- it is now the CasaBlanca -- but the Mesquite building boom was underway. Since 1996 two more hotel-casinos have opened and Mesquite's population has more than doubled. The city's five largest employers all are casino resorts.

Growth has brought controversy. An adult book and video store opened in 1993, sparking outrage among the city's conservative populace and its visitors. For more than 30 months an estimated 8,000 people from Utah, Nevada and Arizona participated in a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week vigil outside the store, jotting down license plate numbers and scolding anyone who went inside. The store closed in 1996.

Mesquite made headlines again in 1998 when promoters staged a Pamplona, Spain-like "Running of the Bulls" event on a dusty course five miles east of town. Despite protests from animal rights organizations, some 10,000 spectators showed up to watch 650 runners flee from a dozen Brahman bulls in temperatures over 100 degrees. Nobody was seriously injured, although one man broke a rib after a bull trampled him. A second "Running of the Bulls" is scheduled for July 10, and the spectacle may become an annual event.

Although Mesquite pulls one-third of its visitors from Utah, business owners in St. George -- southwestern Utah's own boomtown -- take a dim view of their Nevada neighbor 36 miles down the interstate. St. George motel owners gaze from their windows at billboards along southbound I-15, touting $19 rooms a half-hour's drive away.

"That's the biggest sore point. We can't compete against Mesquite's prices," said Shayne Wittwer, president of the St. George City Lodging Association. "We're just as warm as them. Our golf courses are just as nice. But they definitely hurt us. The transient traveler will take a $15 room over a $60 room every time."

Especially when that $15 room comes with a casino, a large pool, a spa and a nearby golf course. The competition for travelers' dollars has strained relations between tourism officials in the two cities, says Liz Leavitt, executive director of the Mesquite Area Chamber of Commerce. Underlying the tussle for tourists is a culture clash between the wholesome, early-to-bed city to the north and the 24-hour, mini-gambling mecca to the south.

"After 8 o'clock there's really nothing to do up there," said Mesquite's Leavitt. "And that's when things just get started here." Besides slots, craps and blackjack, Mesquite hosts concerts by such past-their-prime performers as Glen Campbell, Three Dog Night and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

"Let them have the gamblers ... and let the families come stay with us," retorted Wittwer, who represents St. George's two dozen hotels and motels. "We market a clean, family oriented community that has a lot of outdoor activities."

St. George trumpets its proximity to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Brian Head ski resort, the Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City and the summer stage shows at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. The thing is, Mesquite has begun touting those attractions in its advertising, too -- along with such Nevada sights as Lake Mead and Valley of Fire State Park.

"We've realized we've got to market our entire area and not just our individual regions," said Leavitt. "If people don't golf or gamble, there's not much here for them to do."

That may change soon. Plans are underway to open a 2,700-acre wild animal preserve five miles south of Mesquite. And city tourism boosters hope to attract a shopping center with factory outlet stores.

Despite the city's withering heat in July and August, Mesquite's growth spurt shows no sign of slowing. Retirees are flocking here, and a new industrial park is luring high-tech businesses. Besides golf and gambling, the city offers residents low property taxes, no state income tax and no taxes on food. The word seems to be spreading: On an average month, the Chamber of Commerce mails 350 promotional packages to people around the country seeking to visit Mesquite or relocate here.

All this may be too much for Richard Campbell, the Connecticut transplant.

"If it grows too fast, that's when I get restless," he said. "We only have one traffic light, and I like that. Maybe when they get that second traffic light, that's when I'll move on."

"We've realized we've got to market our entire area and not just our individual regions. If people don't golf or gamble, there's not much here for them to do."Liz LeavittMESQUITE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE