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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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