A toast to Las Vegas’
original ‘godfather’

Jun 8, 2004 5:32 AM

A museum opens in downtown’s old post office next year honoring some who helped make Las Vegas what it is.

There ought to be a big statue in the lobby for the town’s real godfather. He was a banker, E. Parry Thomas.

Parry Thomas got the money to finance construction or expansion of many Strip (and downtown) resorts.

He got union pension funds to invest in those projects and financed a hospital to provide care for union members, and for housing tracts so casino workers would have places to live.

Parry Thomas started poking around the Las Vegas Valley in the early 1950s. He had been a ski-paratroop officer and did some military intelligence work in Europe, and got degrees in banking and finance. His dad, a plumber, ended up owning a Utah bank during the Depression.

The Bank of Las Vegas opened in 1954, and Parry Thomas was sent down from Utah to see why it wasn’t doing so well.

It was simple, he discovered. Bankers did not like to loan money to gamblers, especially those of the Las Vegas variety. And with fewer than 40,000 people living here, the prospects were slim. He made some loans through his father’s bank before the breakthrough loan that financed a golf course for the Stardust Hotel. Then along came the financing to build Sunrise Hospital, out in sagebrush-and-jackrabbit territory, and close by the Boulevard Mall.

Some of those first Strip hotels were in bankruptcy in the mid-1950s. Parry Thomas helped put together a group of businessmen to draw new business to the valley — the Southern Nevada Industrial Foundation. They began spreading the word on the region’s tax advantages.

The valley’s housing boom stopped in the early 1960s. There were 3,200 homes in foreclosure, available for $100 down and the assumption of the payments. It was a bad climate for investment dollars.

Some of the casino crowd convinced Parry Thomas to go after Teamster pension fund money. The union loaned millions of dollars through Parry Thomas, who now headed the Bank of Las Vegas. The banks were paying investors 4 or 5 percent interest; the pension fund paid a 12 percent return.

Those loans financed remodeling or expansion of the Sahara, the Desert Inn, the Fremont, Sands, Dunes, Stardust and Riviera hotels. Students of the valley’s economy noted that, if not for Parry Thomas’s financing, the Las Vegas Strip would have nothing today but 300- and 500-room hotels.

In 1965, Parry Thomas wanted to diversify Nevada’s investment portfolio. After discreet lobbying for two years, he helped push through legislation that allowed corporations to become gaming licensees. The first was Hughes Tool Company — although the banker may have given it a premature boost helping a young Steve Wynn get points in the Frontier Hotel while owning bingo parlor stock in Maryland.

Parry Thomas became a major force in changing the image of Las Vegas, helping billionaire Howard Hughes with the purchase of the Desert Inn, the Frontier, Castaways, Landmark, Silver Slipper, Sands, the North Las Vegas airport, and nearly every piece of vacant Strip property between the Sahara Hotel and McCarran airport south of town.

Parry Thomas and real estate partner Jerry Mack created a foundation to buy 300 acres of land to expand "Sagebrush U," as Nevada Southern University was called. The expansion would become the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That institution immediately created a College of Hotel Administration, whose graduates today have become leaders in all phases of resort operations around the globe.

Parry Thomas coached along that young Steve Wynn, advising Wynn to buy (and sell) a 25-foot-wide strip of land at Flamingo Road and the Strip. It’s the south chunk of today’s Caesars Palace property. Thomas helped Steve Wynn parlay a liquor distributorship into more and more stock in downtown’s Golden Nugget hotel. When a major Nugget licensee ran into regulatory problems, Wynn, bought up that stock, too, and became the Nugget’s sole owner.

Parry Thomas, the man with the golden pen, deserves a statue in that downtown museum.