Casino owner's $2 million gift surprises Las Vegas

To LeRoy Stapleton, $500 could mean the difference between prolonged homelessness and finding a job that could get him back on his feet.

"It would be a big help," said Stapleton, who lined up with 30 other people outside a Las Vegas unemployment office Monday morning waiting for it to open. "You need money to make money. If I had some gas, I could find a job."

A Las Vegas casino owner's anonymous gift of $500 each to 4,000 southern Nevada families in recent months has had tongues wagging in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. The $2 million gift to the United Way of Southern Nevada was the charitable organization's largest donation to date, and for months, guessing the identity of the donor became a popular pastime in Las Vegas.

The first round of families received $500 bank gift cards just before Christmas 2011. Another 2,000 families received the donations Saturday in Las Vegas. The families were not told how much they would receive. Casino titan Steve Wynn confessed earlier this month to a newspaper columnist that he was the not-so-secret donor, but the families were never told Wynn was behind the funds.

In some ways, the charitable gifts represent the dichotomy of Las Vegas' intertwined, but disparate economic classes. Wynn has made his money from wealthy travelers who think nothing of dropping thousands of dollars on a weekend of excess and vice. He has put a small portion of that money back into this community of struggling blue-collar workers who clean hotel rooms, pour $22 cocktails and build the shimmering casino towers along the Las Vegas Strip. Many of the families who received the $500 gift earned roughly $16,000 or less last year.

Las Vegas business leaders said the donation wasn't unusual. They pointed to this desert city's many charitable and wealthy residents. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson has opened clinics throughout Las Vegas. Crooner Wayne Newton is known for taking in pets others no longer want. Tennis great Andre Agassi opened a charter school for at-risk Las Vegas children.

But to the families who received the $500 gift cards, this was anything but the norm. One woman collapsed to the ground upon receiving her gift card. Without it, she wouldn't have been able to make her rent. Children jumped up and down, certain the funds meant they would receive long delayed Christmas gifts. Some were advised to use the money toward a bus pass, so they could start their job hunts.

Two days after she received the gift card, Shinoa Owens had already spent most of it on car insurance and a cellphone bill. Owens, 21, lives with her 2-year-old daughter. She works about 28 hours a week at two separate retail jobs and aspires to work in an office as an assistant or secretary.

"That was really nice of him," Owens said of Wynn. "I don't care how much he spent elsewhere. I am glad he shared some of it with me. Even if it was just $25. I am not a greedy grubber."

Streets lined with foreclosed homes, an obliterated construction industry and massive unemployment are just some of the problems Nevada faces. Once the fastest growing state in the nation, Nevada was wounded when the economy collapsed and sent thousands to the unemployment lines. Las Vegas' unemployment rate was 11.6 in April, and one in every 285 homes is in foreclosure.

"You go for interviews and they just never call you back," said Judy Hirsch, 58, of Las Vegas, who became unemployed for the first time in October, when she lost her job as an administrative assistant. A $500 donation would help pay the bills, she said.

With Nevada's decline, casino kings have helped Las Vegas limp forward. They stroke checks at charity balls and give unknown sums in private.

"It's very common," said Jan Jones, a former Las Vegas mayor and a spokeswoman for Caesars Entertainment Corp. "They are prolific givers."

The Caesars Foundation has given more than $17 million to organizations across the nation since 2010, including $1 million to Las Vegas' Opportunity Village, which benefits people with intellectual disabilities. Billionaire Phil Ruffin, who owns the Treasure Island casino, is also a heavy hitter in the nonprofit circuit but doesn't like to give and tell, his spokeswoman said.

Wynn also declined to comment through a spokesman Monday. A local newspaper named him Las Vegas' highest-earning executive of 2011. His company made a $1.3 billion profit in the first quarter of this year.

"He's lived here a long time and just wanted to give something back to the community," said Cass Palmer, president of United Way of Southern Nevada.

On the Las Vegas Strip, Wynn's name graces one of two gilded towers symbolizing his domestic empire — the Encore and Wynn casinos. Both are among the Strip's swankiest resorts. Gold-tinted chandeliers, marble floors and decorative gardens entice guests to leave with thinner wallets. Retail areas feature fashions from Dior, Chanel, Cartier and Hermes.

Mel Echegoyen, 26, was waiting to check out from Encore on Monday morning. He lost $2,000 at the roulette and black tables during his rowdy weekend trip with friends.

"You don't see that very much," he said of Wynn's donation. "People here are on vacation. They aren't here to help."