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The End Of An Era: John L. Smith Reflects on Parry Thomas And The Making of Las Vegas

The passing of Las Vegas banking legend E. Parry Thomas this past week at age 95 is a reminder not only of the incredible arc of Las Vegas history, but of how much the casino community has changed.

Newcomers to Las Vegas are forgiven for not knowing much about Thomas, a founder of Valley Bank. He arrived in Las Vegas in the mid-1950s, at a time financial institutions essentially refused to loan money to the characters who comprised the casino crowd.

And if Las Vegas Boulevard, and the valley generally, were ever going to reach their full potential, it had to have a reliable stream of investment income for development of everything from housing tracks and strip malls to hospitals and, yes, glittering gambling halls that dripped in neon.

Thomas and his banking partner, Jerry Mack, were just up for the task. They made loans based on track record and character, not college degrees and white-glove pedigree. Thomas handled the casino crowd, Mack the commercial real estate. And together Valley Bank became known far and wide for fueling the Las Vegas growth engine.

Thomas also faced scrutiny over the years for some of his business dealings, some of which were associated with the mobbed-up Dunes and the shadowy Continental Connector Corporation. Thomas helped facilitated the mysterious casino buying spree of eccentric Howard Hughes at a time the mob was under heavy duress from the U.S. Justice Department in the late 1960s. Several years later, Hughes was gone, the shadow of heavy mob involvement in Las Vegas had diminished and was replaced by corporate casinos, and Thomas was largely responsible for the so-called ”evolution."

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Federal investigators suspected the Hughes casinos were ripped off from the inside and that he’d overpaid in the extreme for his gaming properties, real estate holdings, and mining claims. Thomas emerged from every investigation unscathed.

Today, Thomas is probably best known as the man responsible for giving casino titan Steve Wynn his first and best shot at gaming’s gold ring. And although some of the men he helped make wealthy were loud and very high profile, Thomas himself was content to remain in the background. Even the basketball arena at UNLV that bears his name fails to capture his importance to the growth of the community.

He did so quietly, and with a caliber of class that’s always been in short supply here.

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Contrast that approach with what is going on behind the scenes and on the front page of the local newspaper regarding the Las Vegas Sands’ football stadium proposal. It’s a $1.9 billion deal with a funding formula that calls for $750 million in room tax dollars.

It is being loudly touted in the news pages as a “must have” for Las Vegas and a guaranteed new home for the Raiders NFL franchise - if the deal goes through a special legislative session and emerges victorious. Sands top officials Rob Goldstein and Andy Abboud have been ramrodding the project from the start. The plan has everything but a Sands logo on it.

But for some reason in its Sunday edition the Las Vegas Review-Journal attempted to change the narrative from a total company effort to something akin to a personal gift to the community from the super-wealthy family of Sands major domo Sheldon Adelson.

It again made the newspaper appear it was shilling for its new owner. And it again made it appear the proposal has as much to do with derailing the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s new convention center project as giving a valentine to Southern Nevada’s football fans.

At a time like this, I am left wondering how E. Parry Thomas might have handled this one.

For KNPR’s State of Nevada, I’m John L. Smith

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