March 31, 2003
Securing America's Playground
BY STEVE FRIESS
LAS VEGAS--Last December, a month before taking
office, Las Vegas Sheriff-elect Bill Young committed a faux
pas at a conference of security officials: He gave an honest
assessment of the terror risk. "Being America's playground,"
said Young, "we have to be a prime target for fundamentalists
whose beliefs are radically different from ours." Young's
remarks enraged the hospitality industry. "Everybody knows
that Las Vegas is . . . a soft target," says a source at
the city's Convention and Visitors Authority. "But you
don't go saying it when you're about to become sheriff."
At least not in a metropolitan area that boasts
125,000 hotel rooms and attracts more than 30 million visitors
a year. Young got the message. Since those impolitic remarks,
he and other police, casino, and tourism officials have publicly
expressed nothing but confidence in the safety of Sin City.
Famous hotel-casinos such as New York-New York are "like fortresses,"
claims Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, who oversees tourism promotion
for Nevada. Indeed, when a Russian museum lent three famous
Faberge eggs last year to the Bellagio Museum of Fine Art, a
Russian official said that "there is no place safer in America
than the inside of a casino."
Warning. Perhaps. But there have been a couple
of disturbing signals. Five of the 9/11 hijackers, including
Mohamed Atta, visited Las Vegas the previous June. And the MGM
Grand hotel was one image on a video seized from alleged terrorists
last year, along with Disneyland.
So security has been ramping up here for a
while. Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage Inc., says that
each of his firm's six local properties has about 200 private
security officers and that their presence has been more obvious
lately to reassure visitors. Since 9/11, all deliveries must
go to the delivery docks. "It used to be that a florist truck
could park by the front entrance . . . but not anymore," he
says. The hotel security directors association has gotten a
lot more serious. Out at Hoover Dam, "we've always had a law
enforcement presence," says Bob Walsh, spokesman for the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation, "but now it's more prominent." With the
terrorism alert on orange, each vehicle is being stopped as
it crosses the dam and many trunks are being searched.
For Hunt, one of her first priorities as war
began last week was to lock in committed business. Attendees
expected at upcoming conferences are likely to receive calls
and E-mails from tour operators reassuring them that Vegas is
open for business, Hunt says. That's just fine with tourists
like Joan Jermaine, 44, of Brooklyn; she likes her odds better
here than at home. "We're extending our trip for a few days,"
says Jermaine. "I was in New York on September 11, and I'd rather
be anywhere else if something like that happens again. I feel
safe here, that's for sure."
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