Iconic sign more welcoming

The diamond-shaped sign that greets travelers rolling into the Strip’s south gateway has a spare 1950s style that contrasts as vividly with today’s mega-glitzy casinos as a Volvo at a monster truck rally.

Yet many tourists have snapped photos of the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" sign as eagerly as they have of celebrities flocking to Sin City to party or revive fading careers.

Trouble was, photographing the historic sign was a gamble for decades.

Visitors had few legal places to park. They had to dart across busy Las Vegas Boulevard, hop onto a median, shoot the picture, then scurry back across the traffic-filled street.

The sign, designed by Betty Willis in 1959, became more photo-friendly on Monday.

Clark County officials opened a 12-space parking lot and a paved walkway on the traffic median holding the sign.

"This sign is iconic. It’s been here 49 years," Commissioner Rory Reid said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. "People can now come here safely."

The project cost $400,000 and was paid for by money from resort room taxes set aside for road improvements, said Russell Davis, a county public works spokesman.

Despite all the pedestrians who have dodged traffic to photograph the sign through the years, Davis said he’d heard of no one being fatally hit.

With traffic on the road getting thicker, the new parking lot and walkway will help prevent serious accidents and lawsuits, Russell said. Also, the improvements give people with disabilities access to the sign for the first time.

The lot has 12 parking spots on one side, and a large parking lane for buses and limousines on the other side. It has a separate entrance and exit off the southbound lane.

Drivers heading north must execute a U-turn and go south to gain access.

More than a year ago, the state transferred to the county the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and St. Rose Parkway, said Erik Pappa, county spokesman. After taking control of the road, county leaders decided to make the welcome sign more safe and accessible for photo-seekers, he said.

During the ribbon-cutting, two feather-capped showgirls, one clad in pink, the other in purple, gave the ceremony a flair worthy of Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Standing in front of the sign, with Mandalay Bay hotel towering in the background, the duo each clutched the ribbon as it was snipped.

The woman in pink, Janelle Lewis, said she was, in fact, "one of Oscar’s girls." Both she and her purple partner, J.P. Howard, do ribbon-cuttings as freelance gigs.

Before crews removed barricades to let drivers into the new lot, a young couple parked illegally and raced across the street to the median.

Miguel Cancio, 25, and his girlfriend Wanda Mendez, 26, who were visiting from Puerto Rico, agreed that the parking lot and sidewalk were needed, given the sign’s popularity.

"That’s very emblematic for Las Vegas," Cancio said, glancing at the sign. "Everyone takes a picture."

Moments after the lot was opened, a black limo wheeled in. A blond German wearing a Hawaiian shirt stepped out, gently holding a glass of champagne.

Florian Brandenburg, 32, from Hamburg, said the welcome sign is a big part of a Las Vegas trip, and the parking lot is a good idea.

"I think it should’ve been done years ago," he said.

Wendy and Gary Rugg, of South Miami Beach, Fla., smiled as they took photos of the sign. They praised the new public access.

"We have been here many times but never got pictures," Wendy Rugg, 60, said. "It was too dangerous."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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