The Las Vegas Valley can learn a lot from Richard M. Daley.
Daley was mayor of Chicago for more than two decades, turning it into one of the top cities in the world with strong businesses, culture and tourism. On Thursday, he flew to Las Vegas to explain how he did it and to offer advice about how Las Vegas can become more than just a destination for gamblers and conventioneers.
Daley spoke at a luncheon at UNLV as part of his work as chairman of the Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce organized the event.
Daley outlined several key strategies he believes all cities should follow to better compete in today’s global economy. They include better business and government collaboration, establishing a pro-business environment and maintaining first-class airports, roadways and rail systems. He also stressed environmental friendliness, including such measures as having open space and water conservation programs, and the need for strong relationships with nearby municipalities.
He decried the gridlock in Washington, D.C, saying politicians there are “political servants,” not public servants and said cities shouldn’t sit around waiting for federal help because it could take a while. He pointed out that building a world-class city takes passion, commitment and patience.
“It’s not done so quickly,” he said.
Comparing Las Vegas to Chicago is in many respects an unfair comparison, given their distinct differences. With a population of about 2 million, the valley is sprawled paper thin, its economy relies heavily on tourism and gaming, and most people drive when they need to get places. Chicago, which was the third-largest U.S. metropolitan area last year with 9.5 million residents, is far more densely populated, has an expansive network of commuter trains and buses and boasts a diversified economy that includes industries such as higher education, professional services, finance and freight rail.
The underlying question at Thursday’s luncheon: Can Las Vegas become a global city like Chicago?
A speakers panel weighed in and said that while Las Vegas has important attributes and great potential, in large part because 40 million people visit the city each year, more work is needed.
Don Snyder, dean of UNLV’s college of hotel administration, pointed out that Las Vegas has global name recognition, vast quantities of hotel and convention space and a strong international airport. He argued that Las Vegas is indeed a global city with a strong foundation but said the valley hasn’t lived up to its potential.
“We have a lot of building to do,” he said.
Missy Young, an executive vice president at data center operator Switch, said Las Vegas is a global destination but not yet a global city. Institutions such as the Smith Center for the Performing Arts have helped put the valley on the right track, she said, but there are still a number of concerns, such as the struggling Clark County public school system.
She also pointed out that while McCarran International Airport features advertisements for the Blue Man Group and other entertainment options, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has signs that encourage people to move their businesses to Arizona.
“Those are things we need to do better as a community,” she said.
The 69-year-old Daley knows a thing or two about the topic.
He was first elected mayor of Chicago in 1989 after his father, Richard J. Daley, served in the post from 1955 to 1976. After deciding not to seek re-election, Daley was succeeded last year by former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Daley’s father led Chicago with a tight grip and was known as one of the last “big city bosses.” The younger Daley, nicknamed Chicago’s “Mayor for Life,” led the city with less concentrated but still formidable power.
In March 2003, he famously ordered city construction crews to tear up the runway at Meigs Field, a lakefront airport popular with recreational aviators and business executives. The airport was supposed to remain open until at least 2026 under an agreement between Daley and then-Gov. George Ryan, although the state’s legislature could have voted to close it after 2006. Instead, bulldozers dug out huge Xs starting at 1:30 a.m. with no advance warning. Daley has said he ordered the demolition to protect Chicago from terrorists who could have attacked people using small planes that took off from Meigs.
City Hall eventually paid a $33,000 fine and repaid $1 million in federal airport development grants to settle claims stemming from the surprise destruction, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
But Daley boosted Chicago’s financial strength, in part by promoting its various industries. He said today that when he was first elected mayor, a local newspaper said Chicago was “a city on the brink,” a place where no one wanted to live or do business. In 2010, the year before he left office, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Chicago No. 6 on its Global Cities Index, behind New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong.
Part of Daley’s success stemmed from his environmental initiatives. More than 600,000 trees were planted in Chicago since 1989, with about 275,000 of those planted by the city of Chicago, according to the nonprofit group Chicago Gateway Green. More than 1,300 acres of open space also were added during Daley’s tenure, and a 20,300-square-foot green roof of plants and vegetation was installed on top of City Hall in 2001.
His administration also built the 24.5-acre, $475 million Millennium Park downtown. Despite opening four years behind schedule, it proved immensely popular. The park features an amphitheater, seasonal ice rink and indoor event space.