Connecting the Dots

Las Vegas is a globallyrecognized city. With a skyline that boasts innovative, instantly recognizable architecture and a legendary reputation, the city is a brand unto itself. But Las Vegas is not a global city.

Las Vegas can take advantage of several opportunities to make it a city more competitive in the new global economy, less vulnerable to economic downturns and more diversified for a future of growth, development and forward thinking. The Chamber is hosting a conference in November to examine best practices from Las Vegas’ peer cities that have connected more dots than Las Vegas. There, the Chamber will convene local business leaders, members of the business community, government officials and key individuals from other cities that have “connected the dots,” and use those best practices to forge Las Vegas into a global city, connecting its own dots.

“We don’t have to be good at everything,” says Dr. Robert Lang, UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West and executive director of the Lincy Institute. “We just have to be good at a few specialties and put a few investments into a few areas that are smart. It’s an insurance policy against overreliance on a single sector.”

one key identifiable area is transportation and infrastructure. “The region needs to work on its transportation infrastructure within the region, moving away from overdependence on the automobile,” observes Richard Florida, professor at the University of Toronto and New York University and senior editor of The Atlantic. While he acknowledges McCarran International Airport as a major strength of Las Vegas in its capacity to grow with demand and accommodate more non-stop international flights, other cities have furthered their connectivity through improved roadways, interstate highways and light rail. “There are very basic things missing from Las Vegas, like light rail. Phoenix has it. Denver has it,” explains Lang. Florida also notes Denver’s diversity of transportation infrastructure as an area of strength. “Denver has been effective with its light rail system and encouraging a greater number of its residents to bike and walk to work.”

Lang also cites Denver as a paradigm for economic revitalization after the collapse of a major industry, primarily through significant strides in infrastructure. “Denver was overreliant on energy,” Lang explains. “They had invented one form of economy and relied heavily on that growth. That economy suddenly collapsed, and they had to reinvent themselves and they did it successfully. They made investments counter-cyclical to it. When the economy was down, Denver used it as an opportunity to play catch-up to build a platform in infrastructure for the next round of growth.” Combining investment in infrastructure with the recent designation of Interstate 11 and other roadway improvements, the doors of opportunity are open to expanding the logistics industry in Las Vegas, as well as opening up more possibilities for travelers, tourism and cargo transit. “Global cities are without a doubt connected. They have transportation systems that are fast, efficient and environmentally clean. They enable the accelerated movement of people, goods and services,” says Florida.

Another major component of raising Las Vegas level to other global cities is improving the quality of healthcare. Lang maintains a piece of that puzzle is partnering with a Carnegielevel research facility, as Phoenix and Orlando have done. Arizona State University recently announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic for a $266 million medical school branch in Scottsdale, in addition to the existing medical school at the University of Arizona. Having a medical school in Southern Nevada would not only bolster the economy and act as a multiplier towards diversity in business and industry, but would also inspire consumer confidence in the region, according to Lang. “That was one of the first reasons that Phoenix went after a medical school. They realized that there just wasn’t a kind of key institutional anchor for the assertion that the region had good medicine. Where are they today? One of the fastest growing sectors in Phoenix is biotech.” Lang also asserts that the timeline for getting such facilities isn’t necessarily out of the reach of the current generations, citing that Phoenix was able to do it in about ten years.

Orlando, a city likened to Las Vegas for its size, as well as its tourism and convention industry, has also taken steps to establish a more diverse base. “orlando is a slightly bigger region that’s slightly less reliant on tourism. It’s a little more careful of investments outside of tourism, such as health, to give it a bit of a cushion against the slide of a consumption collapse as we saw in 2008 and 2009,” explains Lang. “They needed a hotel college. They got one. They realized that they have a high rate of retirees and a strategic necessity to invest in current healthcare. They needed a medical school and a medical campus. They got one.” orlando also enjoyed a tourism boom similar to Las Vegas, but differed in that it was less dramatic and more diverse; at the same time entertainment geared towards adults was up-marketed and glamorized, there was a reimagining of central Florida’s economy to include family entertainment. Orlando remains one of Las Vegas’ most comparable cities and one Southern Nevada can look to as a best practice of diversifying based on existing needs and strengths.

In addition to a medical school in Southern Nevada, Lang also emphasizes the importance of the community college system for workforce development, something for which Phoenix has set the example, according to Lang. “Phoenix has dedicated additional resources to technical schools and associate-level work for manufacturing and technology positions to stay competitive in the global market. In Gilbert, Arizona, there is a community college that is connected in technology to the largest Intel chip plant in the world. A student can do part of their time at the plant, and part of their time in the classroom, and wind up with a highly useful and applicable degree in automated manufacturing.” To do so, he ascertains, Las Vegas needs to allow, encourage and foster publicprivate partnerships between the local community college system and major business and industry. This not only promotes meaningful workforce development, but provides students with a path to a skill level that is valuable both to the worker and the local business community. Such workforce development also can be favorable when courting new businesses and industries to the area.

Not all of Las Vegas’ actions during its periods of immense growth have been negative, however. Lang says, “We were doing some right things; we were doing some wrong things. We were deepening and building out our core industry. We chased that strategic advantage as best we could. To that extent, we’ve been a tremendous success. The entrepreneurship, the business skills, establishing Las Vegas as a lead convention city, expanding the airport – all of those things are good. The downside was that some fundamentals were not looked at, especially in the areas of health, education and quality of life. Like other areas, we have been both victims and beneficiaries of our own success.”

Looking ahead to diversify the economy, bolster higher education and workforce development, invest in lasting infrastructure and increase the quality of medicine, these cities are equipped with lessons they have learned, plans they have implemented and best practices they have executed. We can apply these ideas and methods to Las Vegas’ needs and deficits. They have connected the dots. Now, it’s our turn.

Join the conversation to connect the dots in Las Vegas. The Chamber’s symposia will take place on Thursday, November 15 and Friday, November 16.