The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign is a liar. Not about the fabulous part. About it welcoming anyone to Las Vegas. The sign sits four whole miles south of the city of Las Vegas, on a portion of Las Vegas Boulevard that takes motorists merely from Enterprise, Nev. into Paradise, Nev. Both are unincorporated Clark County townships.
What the world thinks of as Las Vegas is not in Las Vegas at all. In fact, if your entire Las Vegas trip consists of landing at Harry Reid International Airport and staying and playing on the Strip, you’ll never once set foot in the city of Las Vegas.
OK. So can’t the sign be interpreted as welcoming motorists to the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area then? No, that would be another lie. The Las Vegas Valley starts near Sloan, Nev., 11 miles south of the sign.
So What Gives?
Money. Also, a little secret that the owners of the original Las Vegas Strip hotels – and, for that matter, probably today’s – didn’t want visitors knowing: that Paradise, Nev., was a place they made up just to avoid paying taxes to the city of Las Vegas, and to skirt its stricter laws and regulations.
By 1950, the Pair-o-Dice Club, Thunderbird, El Rancho, Last Frontier, Flamingo, and Desert Inn had already gone up on either side of Highway 91, as the main road from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles was then known. So Las Vegas Mayor Ernie Cragin made what seemed like a natural move. Since the area was no longer undeveloped Clark County desert — and since its glimmering new casino resorts diverted a growing amount of the traffic bound for Las Vegas from L.A. – he attempted to annex it. At the time, expanding the city’s tax base would have funded his ambitious building agenda and paid down the city’s rising debt.
But property taxes inside the city limits were much greater than they were outside ($5 per $100 of valuation versus $3.48 per $100). Gambling and liquor licenses fees and taxes cost more, too. And this didn’t sit well with a group of casino executives led by Gus Greenbaum, who was installed by gangster Meyer Lansky as the late Bugsy Siegel’s replacement in charge of the Flamingo in 1947. The group lobbied Clark County’s commissioners for township status. This would have prevented any annexation without the commission’s approval.
Many internet sources accuse the commission of accepting mafia bribes to create the township of Paradise, which is certainly possible, if not probable. (The lobbyists also included Desert Inn “owner” Wilbur Clark, who in reality was the front man for Cleveland mobster Moe Dalitz.) However, former UNLV history professor Eugene Moehring’s 1989 book, Resorts City in the Sunbelt, suggested that the commissioners had other incentives to vote to establish the township.
“Victory came on Dec. 8, 1950, when county commissioners, anxious to block the expansion of Las Vegas while enlarging their own tax and power bases, acceded to the petitioners’ request,” he wrote.
Paradise took its name from the area’s previous name. (Paradise Valley, as it was known since at least 1910, featured an unusually high water table that made the land a paradise for farmers.) At the time of the township’s creation, it was one mile wide and four miles long. A month later, it was expanded to include all residential areas of Paradise Valley, growing to 54 square miles.
Any doubts about the new township’s legitimacy were confirmed by the composition of its first town board. It consisted entirely of Greenbaum, Dalitz, and executives from the El Rancho, Last Frontier, and Thunderbird. (Incidentally, eight years after Paradise was formed, Greenbaum followed in Siegel’s footsteps in another way – by becoming the victim of another never-solved gangland-style murder.)
Though now located in Paradise, the Highway 91 casino hotels all continued describing their location in their marketing campaigns, on their postcards, and on their properties as Las Vegas. And the megaresorts that replaced them still do to this day. And it’s easy to understand why. Perpetuating this myth allows them to enjoy the international fame conveyed by a Las Vegas address without paying a dime in city taxes for it.
So Why is it Called Las Vegas Boulevard/the Las Vegas Strip?
When construction began on Interstate 15, which took over as the main route from L.A. to Salt Lake City, Highway 91’s name was changed to reflect its functional transition to a local road. Since it led to Las Vegas, it officially became Las Vegas Boulevard in 1959.
The casino hotel operators couldn’t be happier about this, since it made Paradise seem even more like Las Vegas to tourists. (The Las Vegas Strip was a nickname coined by Guy McAfee, the Golden Nugget founder and former L.A. cop who envisioned the drag as a nascent Sunset Strip.)
That same year, Clark County hired Western Electric Displays to codify this myth forever more. The company installed the Betty Willis-designed “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.
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