Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Things are bad in Las Vegas, but there’s hope if you look in the right places.
That’s the assessment of Brookings Institution urban policy scholars Mark Muro and Robert Lang, who delivered a state-of-the-city lecture Tuesday at UNLV.
Lang and Muro were here to mark the beginning of a partnership between UNLV and Brookings, which for the first time has established a significant U.S. presence outside Washington.
Some of the bad news is obvious, and Las Vegas residents confront it every day — record unemployment, sky-high foreclosure rates, massive state budget deficits.
Muro and Lang, co-directors of the Brookings Mountain West Initiative, said Southern Nevada must correct important deficiencies if we’re to achieve sustainable and widely shared prosperity after the recession.
We have a weak transportation system, with a maddeningly slow route between here and Phoenix, and just four lanes at points between here and Los Angeles. We have no rail, though a high-speed train to Victorville, Calif., is planned.
In the valley itself, we are almost entirely auto-dependent.
Too much of our private sector economic growth comes from food, drink, leisure, hospitality, real estate and construction — 53 percent — twice the national average. In other words, we’re hyper-reliant on consumption, and we don’t produce enough stuff or ideas to sell to people elsewhere.
Houston, by contrast, with its thriving energy sector, relies on consumption for 17 percent of its growth; San Jose, with its technology, 21 percent.
A related weakness: Very little of our population is employed in research and development or innovative growth industries, which are the mark of widely shared and sustainable prosperity in other cities such as San Jose, Seattle and Salt Lake City.
San Jose produces 475 patents and Salt Lake City 151 patents for every 100,000 residents; we produce about 30.
The reasons for this are known to Las Vegas residents: By most measures, we have, at best, mediocre schools, universities, health care and cultural facilities to draw those leaders and young entrepreneurs of knowledge industries.
If Muro played bad cop, challenging Las Vegans and their public officials to find ways to build a better future at this key inflection point, Lang focused on our strengths: He said the growth of the convention business in Las Vegas is a great, untold business story.
Although Las Vegas is viewed by the world as a debauchery capital, the massive convention industry has actually turned it into something else, Lang said.
For the business world, Las Vegas is a place to meet partners, customers, suppliers.
In fact, some businesses are almost entirely reliant on an annual trek to Las Vegas to win customers.
Lang noted that even as globalism and information and communication technology have expanded the reach of business, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
“In the end, you have to look someone in the eye and trust them,” he noted, explaining the importance of trade shows.
Las Vegas, he said, “is a leading market exchange for establishing relationships.”
Moreover, he quipped, “They go out at night. And they do things that night, and maybe they need to trust each other.”
Lang said policymakers should focus on building an environment where those conventiongoers could create permanent homes for their businesses here, similar to the biotechnology industry’s move to the Bay Area in the wake of important conferences there in the 1970s.
He noted that this has happened with the furniture industry here, referring to the permanent trade show at World Market Center, which has drawn furniture design professionals.
Once an industry becomes dominant, it can leverage that dominance into other arenas, Lang noted. So for instance, Houston, which once relied on oil, has branched out into other lucrative areas, including technology for energy exploration and specialty energy finance.
Lang said Vegas should consider renewable energy development an area of such promise, so that they come for the sun and wind, but stay for the research and development.
Lang and Muro both said policymakers would need to address Southern Nevada’s infrastructure weaknesses, including transportation, schools and health care.
Developing a light rail system, they said, would send a signal, as it has in Portland, Ore., and Phoenix, that Vegas is a cool place for young, educated professionals.
The city’s auto-centric development has limited living options and should be retrofitted to create walkable neighborhoods, Lang said.
This could be done, he said in an interview after the lecture, by offering incentives to developers to convert some of our ample, fallow parking lots into new dense, multiuse developments.
Lang apparently believes in a thriving future for Las Vegas. He is moving here, he said to applause.
What was missing from the lecture was any discussion of the state’s political dynamics.
Their proposals will cost money, and the state’s taxpayers have a long history of refusing to provide it.