clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

WENDOVER: BETWEEN WENDOVER, UTAH, AND WEST WENDOVER, NEV

WENDOVER: BETWEEN WENDOVER, UTAH, AND WEST WENDOVER, NEV., IS AN INVISIBLE BORDER LINE SEPARATING THE TWO CITIES AND STATES. FAR MORE VISIBLE, HOWEVER, ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE COMMUNITIES. WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, THE NEW HOMES, STREETS AND BUSINESSES ARE ON THE NEVADA SIDE. EVERYTHING OLD AND DECREPIT IS IN UTAH. The Ziegler brothers of Milaca, Minn., were so busy losing money on their recent three-day escape here, they missed the guided tour.

OK, there isn't a guided tour. Given the chance, though, Neil and Dan certainly would've taken their wives for a quick look at prosperous West Wendover, Nev., and its less glamorous stepsister on the Utah side.Well, maybe not.

"I think when you're on one of these trips, you're confined to the casino and hotel. I don't think they want you to leave," said Neil with a voice of someone who'd been eyeing the exits all week.

"If we come back again, that's something we'd like to do," offered LeAnn Ziegler, Neil's slightly more adventurous wife. "We'd like to rent a car and drive around a bit."

Sorry, you can't rent a car here. Perhaps another strategy to keep visitors in the casinos. After all, the Zieglers and the 80-plus Minnesotans and North Dakotans who joined them came here to gamble.

About the only glimpse of the sun the Zieglers stole came at the Wendover Airport as they waited for their casino-sponsored charter flight back home - unless you count their brief jaunts across the enclosed skywalk that connects the jointly owned StateLine Hotel Casino and Silver Smith Casino Resort.

The ride from the casinos on the Nevada side to the World War II airport on the Utah side did give the non-neon side of Wendover a brief chance to reveal itself.

To the east, not far beyond the windows of the converted school bus in which the Zieglers mourned their losses, the sun uncovered block after block of dilapidated housing - an almost hidden Third World-like shantytown made up of old homes built before and not long after the war.

It's here you see trailers in various states of neglect, overgrown yards filled with junk cars and barking dogs, and narrow dirt streets that lead to head-on collisions with poverty. It's here you find an RV campground, where all the travelers are permanent residents trying to survive in this oasis of second chances.

No, the Zieglers didn't get to know Wendover, Utah , at all.

"They probably would have been disappointed or disillusioned," said Doyle Martin, who, as director of the Wendover USA Visitor & Convention Bureau, tries to promote tourism on both sides of the state line. "I do have some people come through (the Utah side) and they say, `Well, it sure is run down.'

"It's unfortunate. That's just the way events have transpired."

The Zieglers didn't spend time with Juan and Margarita Guiza, although Juan probably served them a meal or two during their visit. He works on the buffet line at the Silver Smith, making $6 an hour - not enough to meet the needs of his wife and eight children. His family gets by, thanks in part to free food and clothes from the Mission San Felipe Catholic Church.

The Guizas and their children, who range in age from 1 to 15, squeeze into a barren three-bedroom trailer they bought from a relative for $2,000. They rent the Utah ground it sits on for $160 a month.

"For him is better here," explained the Rev. Hernando Diaz, interpreting for the Spanish-speaking Guiza. "People help more here."

And the work is steady, Guiza said, unlike in his native Mexico, where he tended a 15-acre corn plantation until two years ago. The children walked over a mile to school there. Here, they take the bus.

It is not paradise. Not yet. But the Guizas - like many Mexicans and other immigrant families who arrived before them - believe they are on their way to a better life in Wendover.

Francisco Medina, his wife Sanjuana and their six children moved here from California 10 years ago. Francisco started off as a dishwasher at the StateLine and worked his way up. His grown daughters have followed his lead.

"I work in the Peppermill, and they give a lot of opportunities there if you prove yourself," says one daughter, Maggie. "I started as a security officer, then supervisor, then blackjack dealer . . . They won't let us say how much we make, but it's good money."

The Medinas began life here in a rundown apartment on the Utah side but now live in a $140,000 home in West Wendover. The street outside their home is wide and paved, complete with curb, gutter and sidewalk. The neighborhood looks like any new subdivision in the Salt Lake Valley, only the nearby mountains are smaller.

Yolanda Duran, a former West Wendover city councilwoman, lived on the Utah side when she moved here from Elko 15 years ago. She'll never go back.

"It's cheaper to live over there, but it's not quality living," said Duran, who now owns a newer manu-factured home recently appraised at $115,000. "The duplexes where we lived weren't well insulated. They were full of cockroaches. You could spray and they'd come right back."'

Deplorable conditions

Kerry Bate, housing program manager for the Utah Division of Community Development, has observed those conditions firsthand.

"It truly is deplorable. I've never seen anything like that in Utah," Bate said of Wendover's seedier sections, a description that applies to most of the city's residential areas. "I've seen some very distressing housing conditions, particularly on some Indian reservations, but I've never seen housing that is so challenging and that packed together . . . all those trailers just jackknifed in as close as you could get them."

But all is not rose gardens and sitting parlors on the Nevada side. West Wendover has its trailer parks and lower-end neighborhoods, too, as West Wendover City Councilman Howard Coplan likes to point out. The communities' only drive-by shooting took place in West Wendover just last year, Coplan noted.

Coplan and his newspaper-publishing father contend it's a myth that West Wendover is swimming in gambling-induced prosperity. "It makes a nice sob story" for folks on the Utah side, said Harry Coplan, editor of the weekly High Desert Advocate.

Poverty line

Visually, the two communities are as different as a joker and the ace of spades. The imaginary state line cuts from north to south, separating the StateLine casino from its giant neon cowboy, who towers over the Utah side as a beacon to Wasatch Front gamblers. Even without "Wendover Will," it wouldn't be hard to find the Utah-Nevada border. With few exceptions, the new homes, streets and businesses are on the Nevada side. Everything old and decrepit is in Utah.

The poverty on the Utah side is apparent to Stephen Manzione, an eligibility worker for the Tooele County Office of Family Support. What he finds curious, though, is that just three of the 25 Wendover cases he now handles involve unemployment. The other 22 are families that need help even though one or both parents are employed. Elsewhere in the county, he said, the vast majority of those who ask for help don't have jobs.

"When you have somebody with a green card or that's illegal, (the casinos) can pay them $5 an hour or a little over minimum wage," Manzione observed. "Five or six dollars an hour is good money from where they're coming from but isn't enough to get them over the poverty limits we have."

At first glance, it seems obvious that gambling money has allowed West Wendover to thrive while the Utah side has languished in economic despair. But longtime Utah residents know it's not that simple.

"They forget that when this was started it was a little railroad town," said Gertrude Tripp, a Wendover resident since 1956. "People lived in tents, took whatever wood they could find and made a shack."

Wendover, Utah, was born when the Western Pacific Railroad Co. discovered it could pipe water from a nearby spring to aid construction of the desert rail line. By the time the track and roundhouse were finished in 1907, Wendover was a burgeoning community of wood-framed, canvas-covered shacks. Because the railroad owned the land and the future was uncertain, workers built their makeshift homes just about anywhere.

Zoning mishmash

The haphazard layout of the railroad camp caused few concerns at the time. But the temporary digs became permanent dwellings. New homes and trailers eventually replaced the original structures, and modern Wendover inherited a night-marish mishmash of peculiar lot sizes and minimal setbacks that would confound any zoning official.

Most of the existing dwellings are legal noncomforming uses under the city code. But even Bob Williams, Wendover's building official and recently appointed city councilman, doesn't fully comprehend the city's zoning logic, which in the past has involved little enforcement. The city has formed a committee to decipher the mess and make zoning recommendations for the future.

The reality for many of the city's property owners is that it would be less profitable to tear down the old and build anew. Why clear a lot full of trailers, each of which brings in hundreds of dollars a month, to build a new home or apartment building that might not generate as much profit?

"If we could work with the city and the developer, you could do some developments that have a higher density and more open space than what is there now," Bate said.

But in order to make new buildings pay for themselves, landlords would have to charge higher rents. And Richard Dixon, a former Wen-dover councilman who rents out three homes and a half-dozen trailer spaces on the Utah side, predicts new units would be hard to fill. Wendover rentals are full now because they are affordable, and improving conditions could price out an entire segment of the population, he said.

"About 60 to 70 percent of the lower-paid (casino) employees live on the Utah side. If they don't have housing they can afford, what's going to happen to them?" Dixon said. "It's like Tijuana and San Diego, and that (West Wendover) is San Diego. That's the way it is."

Bustling airport

If history helped create Wendover's current dilemma, it also left behind a potential solution.

The Wendover Army Air Base housed the planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It now serves as the Wendover Airport, home to three aviation businesses and a daily destination for chartered casino jets.

The planes bring in folks like the Zieglers, who gladly leave their cash in West Wendover's hotels and casinos. But the Utah side gets its share, too. Revenues from users' fees, hangar leases and fuel taxes are reinvested in airport renovation and expansion. The facility employs about 50 people, including airport manager Chris Melville.

"The airport is really the largest asset that Wendover, Utah, has," Melville said. "It operates in the black, which in turn helps the city."

Just four years after the casino junket flights began, the airport is Utah's second-busiest when defined by the number of passengers boarding aircraft - about 70,000 a year. A $5 million upgrade, which would give the airport a second functioning runway, is in the works.

Melville envisions the airport becoming a backup to Salt Lake International for occasions when it becomes fogged in or crowded and must turn planes away. That would seem a fitting role for Wendover, which always has welcomed stran-gers and accepted other areas' leftovers.

"It's always been a transient community," said Dale Stewart, a Wendover, Utah, city councilman and a member of the StateLine's management team. "On the other hand, a lot of people who have left have come back, too."

Many come here with a dream. Others just end up here by chance.

Gambling boom

Bill Smith was a penniless stowaway on an eastbound freight train in 1924 when he was discovered and kicked off near Wendover. He found work at the Bonneville potash plant, saved $500 and bought a partnership in Wendover's first gas station - one of just a few between Salt Lake City and Elko - in 1926. A few years later, Smith opened a hotel and, just across the border, a casino.

By the end of the 1930s, Smith had a brand new casino, the State-Line - just in time for the unexpected arrival of 20,000 U.S. soldiers.

"They had nowhere to spend their money except the StateLine," said Dixon, one of Smith's descendants. "I was about four or five years old, and I'll never forget it. They had a single line of military men waiting to get in. When one left, another took his place. It was unbelievable what (the war) did for the State-Line."

Smith is deceased, but the gambling empire he left behind dominates the local industry. The Smith family still controls the assets, which include two hotels and casinos - the StateLine and the Silver Smith - employee housing pro-jects and a good deal of the vacant property left on both sides of the line.

In Smith's day, there were no border conflicts. Aside from the StateLine and other casinos that followed, West Wendover didn't exist. The bulk of the land on the Nevada side was controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the military and one private landowner, Fred West.

In the early 1980s, developers negotiated a purchase of West's property, orchestrated a few land swaps and opened up about 1,500 acres of prime Nevada land. Construction and expansion of casinos began. Desert trails became roads, range land became subdivisions and a city was born.

West Wendover, incorporated in 1991, is a bustling city of about 3,500. Its five casinos and hotels are the mainstay of a growing local economy. A sixth casino is on the way and, within a year or two, 900 new hotel rooms will be added. The city's first high school opens this fall, and an indoor swimming pool/recreation complex is planned. The city already has a golf course, more small businesses are popping up, and because West Wendover is so young, most of its buildings are less than a decade old.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure on the Utah side is falling apart. The city desperately needs to upgrade its waterlines and sewer system. And while business is boom-ing for the six hotels and motels on the Utah side, a lull is expected when West Wendover's new rooms are finished.

Some residents on the Utah side, including those employed by the gambling industry, curse the casino business for all it's done for West Wendover. Some residents tried to talk Utah legislators into legalizing gambling here. Others are convinced annexation into Nevada is the answer.

West Wendover officials don't deny the impact gambling revenue has on their community, even if it doesn't go directly into the city's $3 million annual operating budget.

"It is the basis of all our economy," said Janice Fox, West Wendover's city manager. "We're almost totally dependent upon the gaming."

Elko County, Nev. spends nearly twice as much per child on education as Tooele County, and much of that money comes from state gambling revenue. West Wendover brings in $400,000 a year in fees the casinos pay to operate gambling devices, but that money is earmarked for law enforcement. The city's room tax goes directly to the recreation district, which is building the pool and has funded two ballparks and an equestrian center.

The Coplans insist Wendover could have cashed in on West Wendover's growth by promoting development but instead discouraged it.

"We've had (developers) approach us, but they want the city to give in on everything, and I don't think it's in the best interests of the city to give away everything in order to gain something," said Jim Trammell, an eight-year veteran of the Wendover City Council. "The problem is there's just not that much available private land. And what there is, it's greed that's taken over."

Councilman Steve Perry, who runs the communities' only movie theater, said banks don't want to lend money for projects on the Utah side.

"I've been trying for three years to build a hotel on my property, and we've been turned down and turned down and turned down," Perry said.

Inferiority complex

Citizens on the east side have something of an inferiority complex. They feel ignored and neglected by not just the Nevada side but by Tooele County, the Tooele Board of Education and the state of Utah. Some, including Mayor Brenda Morgan and councilmen Williams and Perry, want the city to pursue annexation into Nevada. Skeptics say the process would take years and isn't a productive way to resolve Wendover's difficulties.

By far the most pressing concern on the Utah side is the public school situation. A 10-year-old cooperative agreement between the Tooele and Elko county school systems, which had the cities' children sharing the elementary school on the Nevada side and the high school on the Utah side, expires at the end of this school year.

The Tooele School District plans to ask voters this fall to approve a bond issue to fund construction of an elementary school on the Utah side. Even if the bond election succeeds, Wendover will be without an elementary school for at least two years. In the meantime, pupils will be schooled in modular classrooms. Many parents fear that situation could become permanent.

Some Utahns who can afford it, especially those with kids in high school, are pondering a move to the Nevada side before school starts next fall. There is a housing shortage, but West Wendover officials expect more than 200 units, both apartments and homes, to be built within the next six to 12 months.

Given those trends, and with residential development essentially stymied on the Utah side, some fear the racial and class divisions between and within the two communities will become even greater.

Racial split

About half of West Wendover's population is Hispanic, and Wen-dover officials estimate nearly 75 percent of their city's 1,800 residents are of Latin descent. Those percentages were below 35 percent a decade ago.

Longtime Wendover and West Wendover residents, the majority of them white and non-Catholic, say they don't mind the influx of newcomers.

"A lot of the old-timers, we've got kids that are married to Mexicans," said Earl Lacy, voted onto the Utah side's City Council last fall.

Others say Wendover is not just two cities but two societies, and that discrimination - not the state line - is Wendover's most troublesome barrier.

"It's really, really well covered over, but if you're not going to be discriminated against because of your race, you will be because of your religion," Duran said.

Lacy used a racial epithet when discussing how the two groups co-exist.

"I think the town is probably about 70 percent wetbacks anymore," he said. "We've got a lot of goods ones, don't get me wrong, but there's some you gotta watch."

Sgt. Angel Barboza of the Wendover, Utah, Police Department notes whites and Hispanics seem to do a lot of watching - of each other - from a distance.

"It's kind of like, `You stay on your side of the street, and we'll stay on our side of the street,' and they need to get over that," Bar-boza said.

The Advocate tried to bridge the gap last year by publishing a page written entirely in Spanish. It was lauded by the Nevada Press Association, which gave the Advocate its 1995 community service award. But despite its critical success, the Spanish page didn't last. What Harry Coplan said he quickly discovered was that while it was true many of the area's Spanish-speaking residents didn't read English, they didn't read Spanish, either.

The cities' migrant population and Hispanics in general are unrepresented in local government. Both city councils and both mayors are white. Of Wendover's 1,800 residents, only 213 are registered to vote - most white.

But that trend could change soon. The Rev. Diaz said a lot of the im-mi-grants, many of whom come from the same Mexican cities and villages, plan to make Wendover their home. They are bringing in their relatives, applying for citizenship and settling in for the long haul.

That some of them are here illegally now bothers some locals. On payday, the Wendover post office is crowded with casino industry workers sending money orders back home. That's money that should stay in the community, and it would if illegal workers were deported, contends Howard Coplan.

Meryl Rogers, head of the Salt Lake office of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, said it's fairly easy for illegal immigrants to buy false social security cards and state IDs or forge immigration documents. Half of Wendover's immigrant workers could be here illegally, he said. But since they aren't causing serious problems, INS investigators rarely visit.

Wendover's woes have also caught the attention of the state's leadership. Bob Linnell, one of Gov. Mike Leavitt's aides, has formed a working group to help assess the problems and design solutions to the Wendover divide, including possible cooperative agreements between governmental and nongovernmental agencies on both sides. The Tooele County Commission has taken more of an interest in recent months, and the governor's Hispanic Advisory Council plans to hold a public meeting here in late May.

It's probably a good thing the Zieglers didn't spend time wandering around Wendover. After a closer look, they might have sprinted back to the airport with no plans to return.

But the Utahns they didn't meet aren't going anywhere. For all of its turmoil, Wendover is the only home most of its residents ever want to know. Despite its history of neglect and significant economic disadvantage, old-timers and newcomers alike are happy to be here.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Casino revenues: WENDOVER, 1986 - 1995

IN MILLIONS

1986 $41,405,000

1987 $43,837,000

1988 $45,017,000

1989 $47,778,000

1990 $52,120,000

1991 $55,371,000

1992 $60,621,000

1993 $68,003,000

1994 $84,462,000

1995 $96,663,000