The dangerous side of Vegas weddings

LAS VEGAS – In a city where weddings in little chapels are very big business, a walk down the aisle in Las Vegas increasingly is preceded by a rumble outside the marriage-license office.

Not between the future husbands and wives. But among handbillers and salespeople who have turned to increasingly aggressive, sometimes-violent tactics to steer couples to their chapels.

Shovings and verbal abuse, attempted intimidations, pressure sales pitches – these have become standard practice during the past five years. But a March stabbing outside the Las Vegas Marriage Bureau in which one chapel employee knifed a rival demonstrated just how far the war among chapel owners had escalated.

Much too far, in the eyes of Las Vegas Councilman Gary Reese.

“If we don’t do something, someone’s going to get killed,” Reese told wedding-chapel owners in April.

Trying to find solutions, chapel owners have met several times in recent months.

At a tense meeting last Monday, Metro Police Capt. Will Minor implored owners to begin documenting every infraction – be they limousine parking violations, threats, intimidations, physical altercations or chapel owners trying to drive others off the road – to report them to police.

Beyond the well-being of the chapel employees caught up in the spiraling competition, even more is at stake.

By conservative estimates, the wedding industry pumps “hundreds of millions” of dollars into Clark County’s economy annually, according to Joni Moss, vice president of the Nevada Wedding Association.

In 2006, 112,531 marriage licenses were granted in Clark County. If each couple brings five to 10 guests, the hotel rooms, food and entertainment, to say nothing of gambling, push the region’s economic take into nine digits.

Many in the industry believe the ugliness resulting from the competition for all that money might lead to the industry’s demise.

“If it keeps going the way it has, there won’t be a wedding industry in this city in 10 years,” Cliff Evarts said.

Statistics may lend credence to his fear.

In four of the past five years, the number of marriage licenses issued has declined, falling from a peak of 125,967 in 2004 to last year’s 112,531, a loss of 10.7 percent.

Is it because getting married in Las Vegas, known historically for being so easy that at some places you don’t even have to get out of your car to get hitched, is becoming a hassle – and a potentially dangerous one at that?

If the first step of that journey – getting a license at the Marriage Bureau – is an indicator, maybe so.

Linda Foresta, bureau manager of operations, described the situation a few feet beyond the office door, where handbillers compete for customers, as “horrible.”

“It is absolutely scary,” Foresta said. “And in the last five years, it’s only gotten worse.”

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