Amid so much gloom, signs of hope

When I moved to the valley a year and a half ago, I knew I was coming to a place with high unemployment, a battered housing market and sluggish tourism.

Little did I know just how messy things would be.

Practically every week, a new report puts Las Vegas or Nevada at or near the bottom of some national ranking — unemployment, uninsured residents, foreclosures, high school graduation rates, share of residents with college degrees, share of general and specialty surgeons, and many, many more.

Some blame can be pinned on the recession, especially for the real estate woes, but there are other factors. There is little widespread effort to diversify the economy, schools are chronically underfunded, and politicians and voters seem to want low taxes and not much else.

Fortunately, people have been working to turn things around. Their efforts won’t bring dramatic change anytime soon, but they’re taking the right steps. That’s especially the case when it comes to boosting UNLV — which, compared with other big universities, spends just a few bucks a year on research — and the valley’s small but burgeoning tech sector.

Last fall, then-UNLV President Neal Smatresk unveiled plans to add 300 faculty members, $30 million in state funding, 2 million square feet of research space, $300 million in endowment funding and $60 million in annual donations.

UNLV also launched a gambling innovation course last year to help students design advanced games for casinos and the Internet. Mark Yoseloff, former CEO of the casino supplier now known as Shfl Entertainment, funded the class with a $250,000 gift from his family foundation.

Meanwhile, the state’s $10 million Knowledge Fund aims to spur research innovation at UNLV, UNR and the Desert Research Institute. Nevada’s Legislature created the fund in 2011 but didn’t provide money until last year.

And through the Downtown Project, a private redevelopment effort, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and his partners set aside $50 million in 2012 to invest in tech startups.

Thanks in no small part to their investments and the buzz they’ve created nationally about Las Vegas’ geek scene, tech products and companies are better developed than they were a year or so ago, and dozens of tech firms have moved to the valley.

Overall, I think most people would agree that a lot more is needed to improve the state of affairs in Nevada.

But it’s a good start.