Our Community Jackpot

With all due respect to video-poker palaces, our neighborhood centers offer some real rec value

Visiting scholar Pascale Nedelec recently presented an excellent paper at UNLV’s Gaming Research Colloquium Series, looking at the rise of that distinctively Las Vegas institution: neighborhood casinos. Most academics start their research with a “literature review,” which is a fancy way to say that they read what other people have written about their topic. There hasn’t been much written about locals casinos on the scholarly front, so Nedelec, a geographer, shared a conclusion from a chapter in 1999’s The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip (edited by David Littlejohn, Oxford University Press): “Neighborhood casinos have become the senior centers of choice for thousands of local elderly people. … [Gambling] provides them with … a degree of entertainment and excitement that to them seems worth every quarter they lose, infinitely preferable to the county’s senior centers or staying at home watching TV.”

It was a harsh reminder that, yes, this is the crux of the prevailing scholarly literature about locals casinos: warehouses for drone-like elderly Las Vegans who—even if they insist they don’t gamble more than they can afford to lose and actually enjoy themselves—are getting a bad bargain.

That sent me thinking about the reality: There are tons of public recreation opportunities here. Aren’t there? While Real Las Vegas implies that our county rec centers are comparable to the county lockup, I think we have a far broader range of options than any casino I’ve been to—everything from capoeria classes (a Brazilian art that melds martial arts with dancing) at the Cambridge center to watercolor workshops at Desert Breeze. There’s a cost for most of these, but it’s rarely prohibitive, even to those on fixed incomes.

It’s not just the county, either: The community centers of Henderson and Las Vegas offer classes in cooking, guitar, art and dancing, or just take part in low-key activities such as bingo and movie night. As for seniors looking for a good time, the Cora Coleman Senior Center, for example, offers free classes that range from line dancing to Spanish. Through the Winchester senior program, seniors can play cards or watch recently released movies—and those are free, too.

There are always free art exhibits, such as the county-run installations at the Winchester center and the Clark County Government Center rotunda.

“As someone who really appreciates the arts, there’s far more going on than any person can possibly attend,” says Patrick Gaffey, the county’s cultural program supervisor. That does not sound like a town full of nothing to do and nowhere to do it, does it?

In addition to their senior and age-inclusive classes, public recreation centers offer options to groups deliberately underserved by casinos. There are no “Mommy and Me” classes on how to shoot craps at casinos, but you can learn sign language, gymnastics or rudimentary pottery skills alongside your toddler at a host of rec centers.

For teens, the Winchester Community Center offers a hip-hop dance class, and its dance team, Star Catchers, has performed at Disneyland. The Winchester Players acting company for young adults does musical theater, and for those few adolescents not inclined toward show tunes, the county has skate parks and even a skate team, whose members have to demonstrate academic success. They not only work on their tricks, but also do volunteer work.

For Nevadans of all ages, the county offers several concert series, including jazz and world music.

So then what’s the attraction of smoky casinos?

If you choose your game carefully, casinos can actually compete with the low-cost fun available at our community centers. Dropping in to the American Latin Basics ballroom dancing class at the Henderson Multigenerational Center, for example, will cost $7, which is more or less the same as the expected theoretical loss for an hour of five-quarter video poker. Throw in free drinks, cash back and comps, and you could argue that seniors hitting max bet on 9/6 Jacks or Better are the ones who really know how to stretch an entertainment dollar.

Of course, video-poker players won’t know the thrill of correctly pulling off a cross-body step with a dip, but they might hit a royal flush and end the night a thousand dollars or more richer. And avoiding the high-hold penny slots is a perquisite to making your gambling dollar last longer: Although it’s possible to make a 20 last a while, it’s even easier to lose it in minutes.

Whatever your game, though, it’s hard to argue that you’re at a casino because there’s nothing else to do.