Many years ago, a young Jeff Whittle found an audience with a guru of sorts. With a bit of experience underneath his belt and the confidence of youth, Whittle had a meeting with Lonnie Reed of Themed Development Management. With the endeavor to grow his Las Vegas business, Recreation Development Company, Whittle wanted to expand into new territory, such as California and beyond. As a decorative and themed contractor, he was eager to network with colleagues and like-minded contractors, gather more accounts and do more interesting, elaborate projects.

“I sat with Lonnie in his office and told him I wanted to be a theme park contractor, and he explained to me how difficult it was and how it would be even more so on a new company and advised me to proceed carefully,” recalls Whittle. “He was candid, polite and caring. I took his advice and went back to what I was comfortable with, intending to get a few more years under my belt and go back.”

Privately, it may not have been the answer he wanted, yet Whittle still took the task of adding more experience to his resume and harnessed his craft back in Las Vegas. What little did he know—and for that matter Reed—was that that particular dialogue would continue some 20 years later.  

The Stone Ages

Recreation Development Company is a general contractor and theme builder that has been contributing to the U.S. skyline for nearly 30 years. Whittle is a third-generation stone mason. His grandfather came to Vegas and did the original stone work on Riveria Hotel Casino. RDC began in 1985 as a small residential contractor performing about $350,000 worth of work a year with five employees. According to Whittle, by the end of the millennium, the company was pulling more than $100 million in revenue and employed approximately 1,400 people. Of course, part of its success is having contracts with several casinos—both in and out of the state. Today, he and his wife Shelley run the company.

“RDC employs several great artists, and we are proud of the many highly themed projects we have built in the resort and hospitality industry,” says Whittle. “We pride ourselves in paying attention to detail and find ourselves gravitating to projects that are highly themed. We also have a very high-tech metal fabrication shop on premises that produces beautiful architectural metal work.”

He reports that business has been good lately and that RDC has experienced growth for the last several years. The company expects 2014 to be on this continued ascension. He says the backlog for this year is abundant and that the company actually can serve on several projects as the GC, as well. “Our clients are realizing the value of having a GC that self performs the scopes of work that are so important to them, including the theming and fit and finish scopes,” Whittle says.

“We have been fortunate to be growing as the rest of our community has been sliding downhill,” he says. “Having a nationwide footprint has helped us weather the storm.”

Welcome to the Doll House

Even with all the success and the high-dollar contracts, strangely one of the big breaks for the company came through a personal project Whittle did. He built an elaborate structure for his granddaughter.

“In 2012, I built a playhouse for my granddaughter Riley that was actually a functioning lighthouse (see photo to the left)—from what I know the only functioning lighthouse in Las Vegas,” he says. “Being the detailed theme builder that I have always been, I wanted it to closely resemble the lighthouses of old, so I built it with a real rotating ‘Fresnel’ lens (named after the man who invented the light magnifying lens) and it truly resembles a real lighthouse.”

The Whittle’s built this in their backyard, adjacent to the pool and it is roughly 300 square feet.

“Pictures and word-of-mouth spread about this dollhouse and eventually this opened up doors for both residential and commercial projects,” Whittle says. Through this local chatter, some people came to Whittle wanting creative work. (Among the famous works RDC can boast is the famous Statue of Liberty on the Strip.)

“One year later Marnell Corrao Construction came to us with a project in Laughlin, Nev., on the Colorado River that was in need of an operating lighthouse on top of a new restaurant,” says Whittle. “They knew we had built the Statue of Liberty for them many years before and figured this was another project we could help with. It so happened we had the miniature version coming to life at dusk every night in my backyard and when they saw it in operation they were sold.

“We recreated the mechanism from my backyard, only approximately four times the size and it was hoisted to the top of the restaurant structure last week and we should see its rotating beacon spinning over the Colorado river sometime in the middle of March,” he says.

This Won’t Invade Tokyo

As business continued to boom for RDC, an old face touched base: Lonnie Reed. It seems he had been keeping tabs on RDC after all these years and thought Whittle was well-suited to tackle a new and interesting project in the city on Fremont St. This project, whose moniker borrowed heavily from Japan’s most famous fictional import, SlotZilla is a theme-based attraction of bizarre sorts. This slot-machine, look-alike ride takes off from a 128-foot, 12-story platform that hovers below the Viva Vision canopy on one of two levels. Riders are elevated 70 feet above the ground on a zip line ride or take it to the next level on the zoom line ride, 110 feet above Fremont Street.

RDC was contracted to do the framing, sheathing, EIFS, paint and supplied the metal doors for the ride. The project was mostly run by Vice President Sonny Nelson and Project Manager Spencer DeMille.

“The SlotZilla project was a fun, problem-solving project from the very beginning,” says Nelson, while giving W&Ca report from the job site. “When this project was brought to us, we were asked if we could help find a solution to skinning this giant slot machine structure with a suitable exterior building product that would simulate the sheet metal of a real slot machine.”

The company worked with John Di Stefano, president of Decoplast/Greenmaker Ind.,  to develop a hybrid EIFS coating and an exterior paint. RDC contracted with the general contractor Kittrell Jensen to provide the exterior framing, sheathing, EIFS and paint to skin the structure.

“The project was unique in that they only wanted to use EPS on the decorative trims and bands,” says Di Stefano. “I suggested the use of the Decoplast DDS System (Deco Direct System), which is a direct applied system. The unique thing about this system is that it utilizes a high build elastomeric basecoat which can be applied directly over exterior gypsum based sheathing.”

Di Stefano says this was important to the project because the design-build team did not want to add any additional weight to the structure by utilizing a three-coat stucco system. “So we were able to give them a solution with one of our proprietary products GroundCoat, which only needs to be built to 3/8-inch and can be applied directly to the substrate,” he says.

On the Up-and-Up

Projects like SlotZilla will no doubt cushion RDC’s portfolio and first-hand extend the company’s work to a base beyond the construction community. Thousands each year will either gaze at or experience what this attraction offers. The project also offers another invitation to builders and architects: You imagine it, we’ll help build it.

In his own words, Whittle says, “RDC has always been about finding a way for our clients to get the biggest bang for their buck. We hate to see budget affect the way a project looks in the end, so our drive is always to find a way to create the look a client is trying to achieve for the budget they have allocated. This attitude has made us resourceful, creative and determined.”