The onrushing closure of the Ormsby House, the gracious flagship of Carson City's hospitality industry, brought a mixture of sadness and frustration to me. Like others, I have fond memories of family and social celebrations centered in its fine restaurants and buffets.
The grand old dame lurched from one financial crisis to another during her three decades of life. Employees and vendors too often felt the chilling threat of imminent bankruptcy since Paul Laxalt leveraged his governorship into ownership of a hotel casino.
Like many others, I puzzle why a 200-room hotel cannot prosper in a thriving state capital of 50,000 souls, especially since it adjoins the Capitol complex, boasts ample parking and a casino.
The answer lies in conflicting public policies that emanate from city hall and the state legislature. The success of the $10 million renovation may well rely on the public's willingness to change those policies.
The Ormsby offered Carson City its best opportunity to become a destination resort. It needed to quadruple in size, offer world class entertainment and install a major marketing program.
An undercapitalized hotel cannot bootstrap this expansion when it lacks proximity to an interstate freeway or a magnificent lake at its doorstep. Travel over Highway 50 remains iffy, subject to the whims of weather, slides and road construction.
Like the struggling casinos in downtown Reno, the Ormsby needed a thriving local business to provide extra cash for expansion. That was not to be. Three decades ago, the legislature made the foolish mistake of allowing market forces to regulate a privileged industry.
As a result, competing casinos opened on Carson Street. Mini casinos popped up in strip malls to cater to bored housewives. Hundreds of restaurants, bars and retail outlets became micro casinos.
Every time the Ormsby added a game or slot, competitors added several elsewhere in the city. Most Ormsby competitors paid only a 2 percent gaming tax while the Ormsby paid a 4 percent tax. The free market fairy promised Carson City abundance and delivered repeated bankruptcies.
When bad times came, shuttered casinos blighted Carson Street. Closed mini casinos added to strip mall vacancies.
For many casino workers, subsistence wages were lowered to minimum wages attached to part-time jobs offering no benefits. Too busy wheedling campaign donations from casino owners, local politicians never uttered the phrase "social justice."
Carson City reached a point where casino sweat shops became the order of the day. It did not matter. Those workers were transients, rarely voted and did not live in the white bread Westside.
Casino workers remained absent from meetings of both the Democratic and Republican central committees. Local churchmen rarely proselytized or welcomed them; social clubs seldom recruited them. Like India, Nevada perpetuated a rigid caste system that oppressed the poorest most.
So we now have the specter of Carson City senior citizens standing on their feet from nine to 11 hours a day in a room too small for chairs. They are counting cash for the absentee owner of a major downtown casino.
For them, a job flipping burgers represents upward mobility. Unlike teenage employees of fast food outlets, these minimum wage casino workers have no hope for a raise ever.
The Chamber of Commerce Babbitts still don't get it. Chamber lobbyists continue to oppose an increase in the federal minimum wage despite local adult workers desperate for more money.
The news was not all bad. Amid a hemorrhage of red ink, Bob Cashell, a management wizard with a conscience, found money to raise the pay of his hard-pressed Ormsby House employees.
While it promoted peripheral growth, the city began downtown revitalization. Corporate welfare became city policy at the same time the state forced women and children off welfare rolls. No one noticed the irony.
To remedy the blight left by closed casinos, the redevelopment program spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to salvage a token amount of higher blight. Much of the money lined the pockets of real estate speculators.
When legal gambling spread across America, new entrepreneurs stood on the shoulders of Nevadans and avoided the mistakes we made. One Connecticut casino now grosses more than all Washoe County casinos combined.
Unlike their Northern Nevada counterparts, Connecticut casino workers enjoy good pay. A much higher gambling tax and soaring revenue from a monopoly operation reward its citizens and minimize negative social impacts.
In Northern Nevada, many small casino owners cannot afford a gaming tax increase because of excessive competition. The owners insist competition forces them to pay subsistence wages.
Thanks to the legislature, the gambling industry has become a lose-lose proposition for Carson City, paying only a token amount into local government coffers while creating many social problems.
The governor's recent study of revenues validated the claim that low wage employees create an inordinate need for more government services. Thus, a flood of red ink is predicted a few years hence.
Already, vital government services are being cut and needed programs stifled. The demise of the state water planning agency is only one example. Yet the state is at the apex of its economy.
Isn't it time for Carson City and Nevada to consider new policies that are both rational and progressive? The new Ormsby House owners certainly deserve the community's full support for their $10 million investment and not policies that benefit those who contribute the least to the public welfare.