Battered and bruised from what seemed like a relentless recession, Las Vegas is poised for a rebound, a series of speakers told business people gathered for Preview Las Vegas Friday.
But it won’t come without leadership, investment and political fortitude, they added.
The fast-paced mostly upbeat presentations at Preview, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce’s largest networking event, had several common denominators: They acknowledged Southern Nevada got slammed worse than most of the country; they concurred there’s recovery in the air; and while optimistic, they know there’s going to be a lot of hard work – and arm-twisting – to keep the region ahead in the areas it leads and to catch up in areas in which it’s woefully behind.
“My biggest fear,” said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West at UNLV and Preview’s last speaker of the day, “is that if we stall in our efforts, we’ll fall further behind competitors like Orlando.”
Friday’s event drew about 2,000 people and included a trade show with 125 exhibitors along the Thomas & Mack Center concourse.
Many of Lang’s remarks included comparisons with the central Florida destination because it’s one of Las Vegas’ biggest tourism and meetings industry competitors and it has made serious runs at Las Vegas, including pitching a formidable bid to move the National Finals Rodeo there.
After the event concluded, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced that rodeo executives signed a 10-year contract extension to keep it in Las Vegas through 2024.
Lang listed five critical infrastructure needs for Southern Nevada to stay competitive in the industries in which it competes:
• The Interstate 11 transportation corridor linking Las Vegas with Phoenix. Lang said it could be the easiest challenge since most of the work would be done in Arizona and not Southern Nevada. But it could also be the most frustrating because Nevada would have no control over the direction of the project. Orlando, Lang said, is well connected to the rest of Florida with its highway system.
• A light-rail transportation system. While many have scoffed at the need for light rail or prefer the less expensive option of beefing up bus lines, Lang noted it’s important to be able to move tourists throughout the city as well as get resort-corridor employees to work. Orlando is working on a 31-mile system. Other western cities – Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City – also have successfully instituted light-rail systems. Public transportation is becoming a favored mode of travel for the next generation of employees who don’t care about buying a car or getting a driver’s license.
• A medical school. While Southern Nevada advocates have sown the seeds for a school here, Lang said Orlando was way ahead with a $68 million facility at the University of Central Florida. He suggests that if the state puts up a seed-money investment to get it started, a Southern Nevada facility could repay the money with dividends within five years.
• A stadium. Lang doesn’t view it as a need to attract a professional football team or to accommodate UNLV football as much as it would be a tourism venue for attractions and special events that currently can’t be housed here.
•Transforming UNLV into a Tier 1 research university.
Expanding infrastructure would push Southern Nevada past the high point of its economic life, in 2007 before the recession, Lang said.
Speakers preceding Lang shared similar optimism.
Opening speaker Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst of Applied Analysis, said while the state’s economy has shown signs of diversification and most of the economic trends were positive, Southern Nevada still had to be wary of blips in the housing market, the reliability of the region’s water system, increasing crime and the philosophical and political battles involving the state’s education system.
But Aguero’s optimistic message was that Southern Nevada has seen the worst of the recession and the rebound has been steady.
Aguero applauded the Governor’s Office of Economic Development’s success in winning the competition to make Nevada one of six test sites for drones, the Switch data storage center, which he called “the baddest-ass data center anywhere” and a new program for the development of computer games at UNLV that already has developed 12 patents.
The event’s second speaker, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter, said history had shown that the city’s innovators have been resilient in keeping Las Vegas as the leading tourism and convention destination in the country.
Ralenkotter said the next challenge for the city would be to develop a transportation infrastructure to move tourists and conventioneers to their hotels and attractions and to get employees to work.
A transportation component is a key part of the LVCVA’s effort to develop the $2.5 billion makeover of the Las Vegas Convention Center into the Las Vegas Global Business District.
Playing off the LVCVA’s new “Las Vegas Enabler” advertising campaign, an offshoot of the “What happens here, stays here” theme, Ralenkotter encouraged attendees to help enable Las Vegas leaders to complete some of the projects needed to keep the city’s lead as a travel destination, particularly for international visitors.