Vegas' CityCenter, Through The Eyes Of One Worker

As the massive City Center project opens in Las Vegas, the city is struggling to get back on its feet. One worker, Delores Witherspoon, has, like her city, fallen on tough times. Witherspoon is one of the 12,000 new hires at the huge complex.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Las Vegas, just before midnight last night, a celebration in true Vegas style.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

SIEGEL: A huge party and fireworks display for the opening of the massive CityCenter development after five years and $8.5 billion.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SIEGEL: The development is a 67-acre complex of resort hotels, a casino, condos and retail space. The hope is that it will lure more visitors and more money to Vegas. The project is already a success for its 12,000 new employees. In these days of record unemployment, they got lucky without gambling.

NPR's Ted Robbins brings us one of their stories.

TED ROBBINS: Talk about happy to be working.

Ms. DELORES WITHERSPOON: I'm smiling all the time. I'm just, hi, how are you? Welcome to Vdara.

ROBBINS: Delores Witherspoon, Spoon to her friends, is a security guard at Vdara, one of CityCenter's hotel condo towers. Although, in her case, security guard may only be a title.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Hello, ladies.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, how are you?

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Fine, how are you?

Unidentified Woman: Doing great.

ROBBINS: Delores is more like a greeter, concierge and security presence.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: They ask me good places to eat. They ask me about my hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WITHERSPOON: They tell me I remind them of Whoopi Goldberg.

ROBBINS: In her corn rows and glasses, tailored light grey men's suit, white shirt and black tie, she does look a bit like Whoopi Goldberg.

(Soundbite of elevator)

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Security. Oh, you're leaving.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, I'm leaving.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Oh, you're going across the way?

ROBBINS: Not that you would find Whoopi Goldberg going floor to floor in a hotel looking for suspicious activity. Besides, Delores Witherspoon is not a Hollywood story, she's a Vegas story. In the 11 years since she moved here from L.A., she's seen the boom when buildings shot up and jobs were plentiful and the bust. In February of this year, she lost her job at the local gas company. That was the start of a rough time.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Trying to stay positive. Trying to stay focused. It takes a lot.

ROBBINS: She was on unemployment for the first time. Her income was cut in half to $266 a week and her grandma got sick. She had trouble paying her mortgage and feeding her daughter.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: I remember growing up, sometimes we didn't have enough food, so my grandmother drink coffee and she would let me eat. Kind of the same thing with my kids, when I was on unemployment, I make sure that my daughter ate. I smoked my cigarettes and drank my water.

(Soundbite of driving)

Ms. WITHERSPOON: This is my daughter Keyshawn(ph).

ROBBINS: Nineteen-year-old Keyshawn recently graduated from school as a dental assistant. But no one's hiring, so she got a job at Kmart. Now, Delores picks her up after work in the only thing Delores says she owns outright: a 2003 Mazda Protege without power windows.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Because my kids know we have to roll down because to help them use their motor skills.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KEYSHAWN WITHERSPOON: My motor skills have not been helped by rolling down the window yet.

ROBBINS: We drive to their east Las Vegas apartment, miles from the glitz of the strip and CityCenter. This is a new place for them, because Delores walked away from the home she owned after falling behind on her payments. She is underwater. Her mortgage is worth more than her house. According to a recent study, 70 percent of Las Vegas area homeowners, that's 7-0, are underwater on their mortgages. Delores is waiting for the bank to foreclose instead of putting the house on the market.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: I don't see these houses selling. There's no house out here that's selling. I'm not fixing to be sitting up here, put a house on the market for sale when I still have to pay the mortgage while it's sitting there to be sold.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Come on in.

ROBBINS: The apartment is small, but new and tidy. Delores says the landlady allowed her to move in without a lot of money upfront. Hearing she had a $12 an hour job with benefits at CityCenter was enough. There is no kitchen table yet, but there is a TV and football is on.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: Woo, look at San Francisco, 17 to 0. What quarter are we in?

ROBBINS: On August 16th, just six days after starting her new job, Delores Witherspoon's grandma, the woman who raised her, died. That knocked her down emotionally. But now she's looking forward, hopeful for herself and Las Vegas.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: I said 2010 is going to bring some good fortune for a lot of people. I see CityCenter going a long way. I see it creating some jobs, giving back people their dignity, you know, we all got to start from somewhere.

ROBBINS: In this case, that somewhere is Vegas' newest and biggest development, which seems to be carrying the hopes of the whole town with it.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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