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Adams: Learning from the Las Vegas Strip

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Standing on a walkway of the Bellagio as the neon lights come on for a Las Vegas Friday night, one has to concede a point to the local politicians throughout the country who worry what Indian casinos might do to their neighborhoods.

The Las Vegas Strip shows the power of the American urge to gamble. This power transformed this desert landscape, still dimly visible in the surrounding raw and arid mountains. It could transform many others, where Indian casinos are just beginning to sprout. The view from the Bellagio is both a warning and an inspiration.

Even the lavish wonders of southeastern Connecticut's Foxwoods Casino Resort and the Mohegan Sun would be dimmed by the garish jumble of the Strip. The cityscape presents a pop history of Euro-American culture, as compiled by the free market. Across the eight-lane boulevard, a half-size Eiffel tower rises out of a Second Empire mansion and a fragment of Versailles, at the Paris Las Vegas casino of course. To one side, a Greek temple tops the high-rise hotel of Caesar's Palace. Down the street at the Venetian, gondoliers give rides on a segment of the Grand Canal plopped in front of a brand-new Doge's Palace and Campanile tower. Somewhere on the other side, facing the McCarran International Airport, sits an even newer Sphinx next to a glass pyramid.

The city seems in a constant makeover. Notorious old casinos have been imploded and razed, making room for new construction (and providing footage for a stream of Hollywood movies). The high-rises nearing completion are as likely to be luxury apartments as hotels, since this is one of the fastest growing populations in the country.

And just as the cutthroat strongmen of the Italian city-states evolved into the great art patrons of the Renaissance, the casinos are beginning to sponsor high culture. Steve Wynn, the Venetian and the Bellagio have all set up notable art museums (with pricey admission fees) featuring French impressionists and English country estate treasures, even if the artist most likely to thrive on local patronage is Leroy Nieman.

A tawdry low life still spreads at the base of the towers, however. Between the self-contained theme resorts lie the struggling nickel-slot gaming houses, fast-food restaurants, wedding chapels and endless rows of curbside newspaper kiosks filled with brochures advertising available women. There's a scene in the remake of "Ocean's 11" in which bags supposedly filled with money are actually stuffed with flyers for prostitutes. George Clooney and his gang could easily have collected their bags-full in one stroll down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Still, some signs of planning are beginning to emerge from the chaos. A monorail system is nearing completion, and it will be a very welcome addition to a public transportation system that now seems to consist of over-crowded buses and tourist trolleys.

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Images of Las Vegas, especially the bad ones, dominate the debate on Indian gaming even though they have no relation to current tribal realities, and probably never will. The biggest tribal casinos are self-contained resorts, like the most successful of the famous Strip casinos, without the urban spillover of Las Vegas. In the few places in which Indian casinos could reach any sort of density, there is still time and room to learn from Las Vegas and plan the infrastructure that will bring out the best they have to offer.

Southeastern New England is the prime example. At least three new tribal casinos are likely to join Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun in coming years. For all of the success of the existing two casinos, the rebuilding of the region's infra-structure has barely begun. Looking southeast from the top floors of the Mohegan Sun hotel, the second-tallest building in the state, one can see the turquoise roof of Foxwoods and the beginnings of a Pequot Corridor. The strip is bucolic but hardly pristine.

The Thames River flows past the Sun to Long Island Sound. Once a route of ocean commerce, it could accommodate cruise ships, with a turn around for larger vessels in the port of Norwich upriver. An abandoned rail line runs along the river next to the Mohegan territory. It connects to the main Amtrak route from Boston to Washington.

The biggest prize of all lies in Preston right across the river, the 600-acre campus of a vacant state mental hospital. Its 80 to 100 buildings contain all sorts of ghosts, even if speaking metaphorically about asbestos and other hazardous materials. Only a casino could generate the kind of cash flow needed to lay them to rest.

Long-range planning could revive these assets to everyone's benefit, if local politicians would only join the tribes in looking to the future. Cooperation is not only possible, it has proved highly successful in developing plans for the Thames Basin Regional Water Interconnection Project, which will improve water distribution not only to the Mohegan Sun but to towns up and down the river.

Even broader regional planning could extend to Narragansett lands not far away in Rhode Island. (Foxwoods already owns a golf course across the state line, practically in the Narragansett back yard.) It would bring in a new source of expertise. The Narragansetts have the financial backing of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., and are working closely with one of its senior executives, Ms. Jan Laverty Jones, the former mayor of Las Vegas.

Could one hope that this kind of practical experience, coupled with Native culture, would produce a regional development combining the economic energy of Las Vegas and the grace of rural New England? It's not too far fetched a dream, even if it comes while standing on the Strip at twilight.

Jim Adams is Associate Editor for Indian Country Today.