LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas has seen its share of heavy construction equipment as it bulldozed its way through one giant casino project after another. But with the recession having gutted the construction industry, excavators and bulldozers near the Strip are being put to use as toys for thrill-seeking visitors.
A business owner has created what amounts to a life-sized sandbox for adults, who pay up to $750 each to push around dirt, rock and huge tires with the earth-moving construction equipment. All it takes is a 10-minute classroom lesson and guidance from trainers through headsets.
"I thought it would be much clunkier, and the lighter you are with the controls, the easier it worked," said Mary Fitzsimons, an emergency room doctor from Walnut Creek, California, who spent roughly two hours digging a trench, moving tires and using the machine's bucket to scoop basketballs atop cones.
"I thought I wouldn't pick it up, I thought I would totally futz it up," Fitzsimons said.
Ed Mumm said he started Dig This after renting and operating an excavator for himself for two days while building a house in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He quickly realized that toying with heavy construction equipment is a diversion that takes participants completely out of their everyday lives.
"I thought to myself: If I'm having this much fun, imagine the amount of people that don't get to do this stuff that would love to do this," he said.
"When they're in those machines, everything else doesn't mean anything," added Mumm, 45. "They've forgotten about all the stresses in their lives because the fact is, they've got to focus on that piece of equipment. When they get in there and they rev up that engine, they know they've got a serious program on their hands."
The play sandbox sits just across the freeway from the Las Vegas Strip, near remnants of an actual construction industry that nosedived in 2008 and hasn't recovered. Major projects, including the Fontainebleau Las Vegas and Boyd Gaming Corp.'s Echelon, were started and partially financed but never completed as the Great Recession walloped the gambling industry and made it clear that steady casino construction seen over the past 20 years was over.
State figures showed just over 54,000 construction workers employed in Nevada in July, down 8.6 percent compared with July 2010. There are no new major hotel or casino developments scheduled to open through the end of next year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Travis Mills, a trainer at Dig This who has worked construction, said he hopes to never go back to the industry.
"A lot of my construction friends are just sitting at home and there's nothing going on," the 24-year-old said as he watched Fitzsimons digging dirt.
"This is a lot more fun — I don't get yelled at by my superintendent all day," Mills said. "I like being around equipment, so that's a plus."
Fitzsimons said she was surprised by how delicate the machines can be, even as they lift objects that would be very difficult to maneuver manually. But she said her short lesson doesn't mean she'd be able to pitch in on a worksite if they need an extra hand.
"I don't think I could jump in and do it but at least I have a better understanding of what they're doing," she said. "No, I'm not ready yet."
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