To hear some people in Washington explain it, the beginning of America's economic salvation may lie here at the end of the gaudy neon gantlet known as The Strip.
Several hundred yards south of the casino hotels that line Las Vegas Boulevard are 150 acres of prime desert, filled with sagebrush, broken glass and other trash. Standing directly across from the main runway at McCarran Airport, it is a barren plot of ground that seems unwanted and unused.
But recently, it has been singled out as a dramatic mistake in federal policy and one that, if properly handled, might have been a vehicle for reducing the $100 billion deficits that now face the country.
Making these claims is Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), who has decided that selling off excess federal property is a partial and painless solution to the problem of deficits. The Reagan administration apparently agrees. It has indicated it expects to earn $9 billion over the next several years by selling off government assets.
But nothing is as simple as it seems.
The 150-acre parcel at the end of The Strip is owned by the federal government, but for years officials of Clark County have been trying to acquire it for a public golf course. More than seven years ago, the county was given the official go-ahead to ask for the land under a statute enacted in the 1920s that allows the federal government to transfer property to state and local governments for recreational purposes. In September, 1975, the county formally submitted its request to the Bureau of Land Management.
Nothing much happened for several years. A group of Indians filed a competing claim, and the litigation delayed the transfer. But early this year, spurred in part by the Good Neighbor Policy of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, Clark County signed a lease on the acreage, which now will house a police station as well as a golf course.
The cost of the transfer was $2.50 an acre, with an annual rent of $10. "Uncle Sam," Percy said sarcastically at recent hearings, "drives a hard bargain."
Percy charged that the land is worth roughly $18 million and that the debt-ridden federal government should begin auctioning off such parcels to the highest bidder, rather than giving them away to supposedly needy county governments.
This is part of an effort he has undertaken to force the executive branch to take an inventory of its holdings--property, buildings, equipment and the like. Once that is done, Percy favors establishing a priority list of the least-needed properties and disposing of them in an orderly way. The administration recently established a Federal Property Review Board to do just that and has taken other recent steps along the same lines.
What the 150 acres at the end of The Strip are worth is an educated guess. No formal assessment has been made and Percy's $18 million figure comes from a comparison with the sales price of nearby land. A Las Vegas real estate lawyer suggests the acreage might be worth double that. County and federal officials suggest the land is worth much less, in part because its proximity to the airport means nothing taller than a one-story building can be constructed on it.
In other places around Las Vegas, BLM has been offering land, but the bidding would hardly persuade skeptical Wall Street that the Reagan administration has a solution to its budgetary woes. In recent years, BLM has earned about $12-$14 million on sales of about 700 acres of land. But recently, it put another 91 parcels of land on the market, and to date 90 of them are still available.
BLM officials here say it would take a substantial change in the economy (especially lower interest rates) and significant revisions in federal law (including allowing the government to compete with banks and private real estate companies by offering long-term mortgages) to make the land more attractive to investors.
Local politicians want to get their hands on more of the federal land that makes Las Vegas virtually landlocked, but they are wary of Percy's approach. "Why should the West take on the national debt?" asks Karen Hayes, a Nevada state legislator. "Why should we have to put it on our backs?"
Others fear the federal government would ruin the real estate industry if it dumped hundreds of thousands of acres onto the market.
So the road to a balanced budget and fiscal stability may begin here on The Strip, but like much else along this tawdry road, the prospect of an immediate jackpot may be only a gambler's dream.