There is a color advertisement stretched across the bottom of the Color County Spectrum's front page.

"Win Slots of Cash!" the newspaper ad cries out. It promises $200 instant cash to 10 random winners each day at the Virgin River hotel/casino/bingo palace in Mesquite, Nev.Above the ad, which shows a grinning woman gripping a handful of cash, is a story about officer Roger Larsen, a nine-year Utah Highway Patrol trooper who took a cut in pay and position to join the local police department - and spend more time with his family.

This is the nature of the burgeoning contrast between St. George and its sinning sister city across the Nevada border.

Gambling vs. family values. Craps vs. golf.

In Mesquite, less than a 45-minute drive south from St. George through the stunning Virgin River Gorge, the casinos will cash your paycheck for you. They'll serve you steak and eggs for $2.95 and put you up for cheap.

The Casablanca resort offers the Chippendales male dancers for $9.95; neighboring Si Redd's Oasis resort touts entry to the Spring Stampeed Rodeo for $5.

St. George has a different draw - golf courses lauded in Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, a crystalline quality of life, the beauty of Dixie's red rock home and recreation for the family.

But when it comes to some tourists, says Washington County Commissioner Gayle Aldred, it's hard to compete with Mesquite.

Local hotels can't reduce the cost for a room the way a hotel bolstered by casino revenue can, said Aldred, who is also head of the local travel council.

It's a sensitive subject in this spectacular valley in the state's southwestern corner, but hotel operators say privately they're losing business to Mesquite.

"Sometimes people would rather hit the tables than hit the golf course," one manager said.

Ching-ching-ching.

That is the playful sound of coins clattering in the trays of slot machines. It is also the sound of traveler's dollars going into cash registers outside of Utah's borders and south to Mesquite.

A change of focus

But St. George has a plan - and it is investing millions of dollars and changing the way it competes with the growing desert community nearby.

What the community can - and is - doing is altering its focus.

As temperatures heat up, and summertime breaks on St. George's slowest tourist season, officials here are battening down the hatches and fine-tuning their marketing focus. And they are doing so as several public projects worth millions come to completion.

It's a matter of balance, said Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George. "St. George and Mesquite . . . we offer different products, so to speak."

So St. George is capitalizing on its feel-good, sun-shining reputation as a clean place for recreation and quality of life. To this end, Washington County is building a new convention center, a softball complex, a swimming pool and a fairgrounds complex to draw people and convention customers from up north.

"We're trying to create some balance for the tourism industry," Hickman said. Which means making Washington County and St. George a recreational center for the Intermountain West and the Wasatch Front rather than relying on tourism off the West Coast.

People come from the West Coast to visit Zion National Park, but they aren't "stay over" people, Hickman said.

"That's why you're seeing the fairgrounds, the convention center, the trails and swimming pool," he said. "We want the people who want to escape whatever that white stuff is you have up there."

If you build it . . .

- The Dixie Convention Center, south of St. George, will open in mid-November and will have a 47,000-square-foot exhibit hall that will compete with the Salt Palace in some arenas. St. George has hosted large conventions like Amway in the past but has had to accommodate displays for conferencegoers in extra tents.

- The Washington County Regional Park is a new $4 million project that sits on 285 acres not far from the area known as Purgatory Flats, about midway between St. George and Quail Creek Reservoir.

A horse-racing track, fair building and indoor arena are part of the facility.

- Improved trails. More than softball fields, pools or other facilities, St. George residents want better trails on which to walk, bike and skate, according to an extensive city survey.

Today, bikers and nature enthusiasts can walk five miles round trip on a tidy trail near the Virgin River. But the St. George Parks and Recreation Department has 30 miles of trails and six city parks in the works, according to John Wilson, superintendent of parks and urban forestry.

Parks and recreation got $3 million of an $18 million bond to use toward the 30-mile loop that will connect St. George trails with extensive state bicycle pathways to and from picturesque Snow Canyon.

There have been some snags with land acquisition, including old-timers who aren't sure they want people skating through their property, said Amy Shumway, trails coordinator for the city.

"People love it - visitors and people who live here. The trails have been an incredible draw for both."

- Sand Hollow Aquatic Center. Looking like a space ship just outside St. George near Santa Clara, the center has a huge double-arch structure over its top. Set to open in September, the competition-size pool is a partnership of St. George, Santa Clara and Ivins.

- The Purgatory Flats Correctional Facility started taking prisoners in May.

"We tell them they're going to jail in Purgatory, and it kind of lightens them up," County Commissioner Aldred says with a chuckle.

The 420-bed jail isn't a tourist attraction, but the investment should bring big rewards to Washington County, said Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council.

The old jail, downtown, had 80 beds, so local criminals aren't expected to fill the new space. Instead, it will rent beds to the state and make a profit.

A few years ago, there was not a tree or a spot of sagebrush in sight on the acrid land where the fairground and jail facilities are now. It's good use of previously unuseable land, Hirschi said.

"People don't want to be around horses and flies, and they don't want to be around jails."

While officials in Dixie look north for their market, Mesquite is evermore aggressively beckoning residents who read The Color Country Spectrum - which delivers to St. George, Hurricane, Cedar City and throughout Washington County.

Utah - or Nevada

"Hot summer weekends. Hot cash giveaway!" screams another ad. They're giving away $500 three times each weekend evening at the Rancho Mesquite Casino.

The uneasy contrast between St. George and Mesquite, and even Las Vegas, has a long history.

Washington County residents get Las Vegas television news. They fly in and out of Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, which is much closer than Salt Lake City.

But some Utahns are hinky about their sister community's personality. Three years ago, Utahns dove head first into an effort to close down the Pure Pleasure Video and Book store in Mesquite. They picketed, all day, every day, for 31 months. They took down Utah license numbers.

Finally, the store closed its doors in 1996.

For some residents on the Utah side, crime has become a major concern. Although other similar crimes occurred in Washington County, many people remember the murder of Kris Jake-Moon, a Cedar City woman whose body was found near Littlefield, Arizona. Before her death in March, she was last seen with an acquaintance in Mesquite.

It is the example Aldred, and two other locals, use to describe increasing crime.

"I don't know the details," says local Robin Mauritz, "but bad stuff seems to happen down there."

While Mesquite draws to casinos, gambling, shows and entertainment, St. George prefers the high road. Mesquite can offer gambling and cheap rooms, but St. George offers the quality of life.

St. George boosts "its tradition of community pride through such initiatives as the Downtown Historic District, the annual Arts Festival, the St. George Marathon, the sports programs and the Leisure Services Department," reads the Chamber of Commerce's visitor relocation guide.

The challenge, it seems, is to find a way to live peaceably as neighbors and complement each other.

"It can work," Hickman says. "We think really, it can be a great balance."