BOULDER CITY, Nev. — When she moved here in the 1980s, Carri Stevens was baffled.
This is Nevada, so where are all the casinos? she wondered.
Where were the one-armed bandits that chime their “ding-ding-ding!" cacophony at seemingly every gas station, restaurant, pharmacy and supermarket?
She soon discovered that Boulder City is the only major city in the state where gaming is banned. And locals don’t miss it one bit.
“Tourists can’t believe it," said Stevens, who with her husband, Al, runs the Coffee Cup cafe. “Here’s a place just 25 miles from the Strip and there’s absolutely nothing Vegas-y about it. Instead, we’re a quaint community where people know their neighbors and kids ride their bikes down Main Street. I call it the Mayberry of Nevada."
The iconoclastic city of 15,000 has for decades rejected two of the Silver State’s guiding principles: round-the-clock wagering, and unfettered growth.
At 202 square miles, Boulder City is the state’s largest city (compared with Las Vegas’ 131 square miles). Despite all that space, officials have issued only a handful of building permits each year while reveling in an atmosphere of shady trees, green grass and public parks.
In Boulder City, the welcome mat has been placed not for people, but reptiles: Inside the city’s southern limits, land has been reserved for the endangered desert tortoise.
But nothing distinguishes Boulder City more than its gambling ban. Playing bingo for money is verboten. Organizations planning raffles need a city permit and can then sell tickets for less than a month.
A few years ago at a City Council meeting, a resident advocated overturning the gaming ban. “His idea was not well-received," said Rose Ann Miele, a columnist for the Boulder City Review newspaper. “I thought people were going to strangle him."
The community’s anti-gambling stance dates to 1931, when the town was founded as a federal reservation to house the thousands of workers building Hoover Dam. The year was decisive in Nevada, historians say: The state legalized gambling and passed the quick-divorce law. To shield workers from such distractions, federal officials banned gambling and alcohol in their closed community. Workers who visited Las Vegas for weekend gallivanting were searched for alcohol and other contraband.
“There was a certain amount of morality at play," said Shirl Naegle, a docent at the Boulder City Museum. “Primarily, they wanted to keep the laborers in good shape so they would show up for work."
In 1960, when the dam construction was finished and Boulder City incorporated, officials opted to continue the gambling and alcohol ban. Hard liquor sales were finally allowed in the city in 1969.
“People never wanted gambling — and for good reason," said Dennis McBride, a Boulder City native who now directs the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. “When I was in college, I worked in casinos in Las Vegas, and it was always nice to come back to Boulder City and not have to walk through a gauntlet of cigarettes and slot machines in the doorway to the local Safeway or the waiting rooms of restaurants. The place was an oasis."
The restrictions mean Boulder City contributes less to state coffers through gambling and room taxes. “We always hear that Boulder City isn’t doing its share," Mayor Roger Tobler said. “But that’s not what we’re all about. We do our part in other ways."
The Chamber of Commerce promotes the town as a Vegas alternative. That pitch resonated with Vinnie Cimino, who recently relocated from Chicago to open a pizzeria. “I just liked the feel of the place," said the father of five. “The no-gambling thing played a big part in my decision."
Very few customers wander into the Coffee Cup cafe with bloodshot eyes and smelling of smoke after all-night gambling skeins. And that’s the way Carri Stevens wants to keep it.
“It would never happen," she said about the prospects of a casino ever opening here. She paused: “It just wouldn’t happen."