05/23/2002 11:00PM

A splash of cold water on a hot weekend


While Las Vegas is in the midst of its first big holiday weekend of the spring/summer season, two events that may slow the flow of tourists and their dollars hang over the Memorial Day celebration.

Just as many visitors were planning their three-day getaway to Las Vegas, the vice president and the FBI director delivered more warnings on potential terrorist strikes, cooling at least some of the enthusiasm of playing in the desert or anywhere else over the weekend.

On a less global note, the 47,000 hotel and casino workers represented by the Culinary Local 226 and Bartender's Local 165 unions tentatively reached an agreement with at least some of the Strip hotel-casinos on Thursday. But a major strike - which would be the first in 18 years - still is possible, and many are still stressed out by the drawn-out negotiations, and the thought of the city's service workers walking off the job. Las Vegas already has been hit by a bus drivers' strike, which is still under way.

Two major gaming companies held shareholder meetings Wednesday and gave their views on the recent concerns facing the gaming community.

Tom Gallagher, president and chief executive officer of Park Place Entertainment, commented on Vice President Dick Cheney's warning to traveling Americans.

"You have to stop scaring people," Gallagher said to shareholders at the company's Paris hotel-casino. Gallagher is familiar with terrorism, having lived in England and the Middle East in the 1970's and 80's. "It's not going to make any difference, frankly, one way or the other whether they say those things or not. The risk is there. It will continue to be there. It's always been there."

Gallagher said what his company must do is "have a very focused effort on making sure we've done all that we think is appropriate to provide a safe environment for people."

According to Nevada Gaming Control Board figures, Strip gaming revenues have been down seven of the last eight months. Travel is down 7.9 percent for the year at Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport.

"A lot of what's going on right now [in the travel industry] is less about fear and more about hassle," Gallagher said. "As long as we have the kind of lines and inconveniences and unpredictability involving air travel, it's going to affect our industry."

The strike picture brightened Thursday when the unions reached an agreement with Park Place, Harrah's Entertainment, and Aztar Corp., owner of the Tropicana. In order to avert a strike before the June 1 deadline, agreement must be reached with the city's other gaming companies.

Station Casinos executives told their shareholders that such a strike would affect every segment of Las Vegas. Speaking at the company's Green Valley Ranch property, Station Casinos Chairman Frank Fertitta III said, "Even the talk of a strike isn't good for the Las Vegas Valley."

With 10 casinos in the Las Vegas area, Station Casinos depends heavily on local gamblers. Las Vegas has been among the fastest growing cities in the nation for a decade, and the population of 1.5 million is expected to reach 2 million by 2010. The locals' market is expected to grow accordingly.

For Station Casinos and every other gaming company, a strike would wreak havoc to the bottom line.

"A strike would adversely affect every company and every employee in Las Vegas," Fertitta said.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.