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Desert Companion

Business: Space invaders

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Space Invaders
Illustration Kip Noschese

Say goodbye to free Strip parking — and goodbye to the neighborly, square-deal Vegas of yesteryear

 

When Jay Sarno opened Circus Circus casino in 1968, he charged an admission fee to visitors. “He thought it was so unique and wonderful that people would pay to go in,” says UNLV history professor Eugene Moehring.

The plan lasted about a week. Customers refused to pay.

Who could blame them? In a city built on the adage that the house always wins, the rest of us take what we can: free drinks, dinner-and-a-show deals, and, certainly, unquestionably, free parking.

But the days of free parking may be numbered. MGM Resorts International, the largest casino operator on the Strip, announced in January plans to start charging visitors to park in its 37,000 parking spaces spread across 11 of its casino properties on the Strip. “This is a business decision and we don’t take this change lightly. It is a significant departure from a long-established paradigm in the Las Vegas market,” says Gordon Absher, vice president of corporate communications at MGM Resorts, via email.

The move will help the company construct a $54 million, 3,000-space parking garage near the Excalibur, which will accommodate visitors coming to the new T-Mobile Arena behind New York New York. The new garage will begin construction this spring and open next year. At this writing, the rate structure is still being finalized, though the cost of overnight self-parking won’t exceed $10. The fee is expected to start in spring 2016.

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‘Valet is not enough’

But such explanatory details haven’t stopped the great wailing and gnashing of teeth from tourists and locals alike, who see Strip parking as something akin to a natural resource or a right.

The experts who spoke for this story have a range of opinions, too. Some say paid parking on the Strip is a terrible mistake, others say it’s the way of the world. But whatever their take on the issue, most agree on this: The end of free parking marks a continuation of a conceptual shift in what the Strip represents — not the democratic, affordable vacation spot of yesteryear, but, increasingly, a destination decidedly geared toward luxury amenities and experiences.

Moehring, for one, thinks MGM’s plan is a bad idea. “The history of 60 years of not paying to park at casinos is being broken here,” he says. “It’s not as though you’re going into some place that doesn’t make money. They make tons of money. And now they want to charge for parking, too?”

For him it’s another symptom of the corporatization of contemporary Las Vegas — a world of reduced comps, expensive shows and pricey food. “Vegas is not the bargain it was in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Every department must make a profit. Even parking now must make a profit.” (“Valet,” he adds, “is not enough.”)

For locals like us, it also marks a shift of the Strip into a more professionalized, profit-driven machine rather than the freewheeling adult playground conveniently located in the center of town.

“In the early days of the Strip, going to the Strip was less of a big deal than it is now,” says Michael Green, a UNLV history professor. “There was a feeling they were part of the community. After all, Nevada had a monopoly on legal gambling, the owner of the casino might live around the corner from you. So there was more of a feeling of closeness and intimacy. Now, locals still go there but it’s more likely for a big event, in their lives or in the life of the property.” A parking fee, the thinking goes, will only add to that sense of event.

MGM may be keying into this idea as it sells the decision as a little extra buff-and-shine to the visitor experience. The company plans to invest $36 million in parking upgrades, including redesigned layouts for improved accessibility, parking guidance systems, smartphone apps that will allow visitors to check for spaces before arriving, upgraded lighting, signage and paint, as well as improved elevators and escalators. Absher writes that MGM believes guests “will find the facility upgrades and parking expansion a great addition to their overall experience.” He adds that “challenging navigation and difficulty finding available spaces” are common concerns customers have. “We acknowledge that this aspect of our resort experience can be improved, and we’re taking an aggressive approach.”

Some experts think that people may grin and bear it if paid parking is explained to them as a transaction in which they’re getting something of value in return — even if it is just being able to navigate a casino parking garage with fewer hassles.

“Consumers are educated nowadays and they’re reasonable. If their rationale is reasonable, I don’t think this parking fee will be the deciding factor in whether people stay,” says Billy Bai, Professor at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV. And make no mistake, says Bai: Rival casinos are watching closely. “I think they’re going to watch a little bit and how MGM guests react to this,” says Bai. “If (competitors) see that consumers are grumpy about it but it hasn’t affected their bottom line or their brand perception, I think they may move into this field by assessing a parking fee accordingly.”

 

‘We should all be charging’

There are other good reasons why the plan may make sense — one being that everyone is doing it. “Every expert says we should all be charging for parking,” says Kara Kockelman, professor of engineering with the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research. “It’s environmentally thoughtless to roll that price into all the other prices that are in these hotels.”

Transit planners and thinkers hope that paid parking will encourage more people to seek alternative, more sustainable methods of transportation, such as bicycles or public transit. (But this is Las Vegas, so don’t count on it. The Regional Transportation Commission moves about 41,000 passengers a day through its two main Strip bus routes, the Deuce and the SDX, but according to an RTC spokeswoman, the transit agency expects no impact from MGM’s decision.)

As such, the shift to paid parking on the Strip may merely complete a process that has been under way for decades — our detachment from the Strip as a place where we locals want to spend our time. And since we’re not down there that much, what’s $5 to $10 extra once or twice a month? As Las Vegas grows up, perhaps so must we.

But other observers warn that we shouldn’t take the leap lightly. We’re still known by many for our square-deal hospitality, and pay-for-parking seems to threaten that.

“(Casinos) don’t work for one-time visitors. They look for repeat visitors,” says Pushkin Kachroo, an engineer and transportation expert at UNLV. And paying to park in a town legendary for its hospitality may leave many, not just us locals, white-knuckling their steering wheels in anger. “It’s a question of trust,” Kachroo says. “Do you trust whom you are buying from?”

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