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May 27, 2015

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Coolican: Urgent need for leaders to step up

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J. Patrick Coolican

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Surveillance expert George Joseph addresses the Leadership Las Vegas group in May.

Pittsburgh once had some of the worst air pollution in the world. But after World War II, city fathers, including industrialists whose steel mills and other heavy factories were creating the mess, pledged to clean it up. And they did.

Once the steel industry died, another generation of civic-minded leaders helped over two decades to rebuild Pittsburgh into what it is today — a thriving city with an educated populace and productive, leading edge companies.

Do you get a sense that this kind of thing is happening, or even could happen, in Las Vegas?

I don’t either. Our “get rich and get out” ethos and civic isolation have too often prevented engagement where it’s needed — in education, the arts and philanthropy.

But I can point to one program that is moving us in the right direction, nurturing civic leaders who hopefully will help us rebuild our battered city.

It’s the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Las Vegas program. I know what you’re thinking — this sounds like some cheesy networking group where Realtors and attorneys swap business cards over cocktails and appetizers at Applebee’s.

But it’s actually something quite powerful, based on my conversations with graduates and current students. The program takes young up-and-comers in business, the nonprofit world and government, grabs them by the hair — not literally, mind you — and shows them what is happening in our valley, for better or worse.

“It’s opened my eyes,” Jeff Iverson told me. He manages 120 employees at Presidential Limo and has a wife and baby boy.

A trip to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth was shocking, he said: “Going there and meeting those kids and hearing their stories — I was so clueless abut the real issues we’re facing.”

Matt Engle, with the insurance firm Cragin & Pike and president of the UNLV Alumni Association, echoed those comments. “I was exposed to things in my own backyard I had no idea about,” he said, citing a tour of the state prison and a session among recovering drug and alcohol addicts.

Iverson, Engle and 45 other leaders graduated Friday, the 24th Leadership Las Vegas class, bringing the alumni count to about 1,000.

Prospective students face a rigorous screening process. Once admitted, they begin in September with an intense opening weekend at Nellis Air Force Base. (Before my senior year at a Catholic boys school, we were sent off to a monastery for leadership training; of course, I hated it at the time, but the experience stuck with me.)

Then, one Friday per month, the students meet and learn about different aspects of the city. From schools and social services to health care and gaming and other businesses. (One Friday, I sat in on an informative symposium that brought together the heads of major resorts.)

At the end of the year, the class decides on a service project. Past projects have developed into significant ongoing philanthropic efforts to feed and clothe hungry children, including DJs for PJs, which provides pajamas for children in crisis.

This year’s class will conduct a public-relations campaign highlighting education success stories in Southern Nevada. Counterintuitive, I admit, and normally I’d scoff, but they’ve identified a real problem: The Clark County School District and UNLV lack public support, and hopefully this will help.

While Las Vegas was booming and everyone was busy building things and getting rich, this program was no doubt helpful and useful. But now it’s essential.

Kristin McMillan, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce who graduated from the leadership program in 1997, told me Friday that now is absolutely the time, not just for the new graduates, but for the 1,000 or so alumni, as well, to step up.

“I’m going to issue a call to action to lead on the issues facing our community — the economic issues, the challenges on health care, social services and education,” she said.

If the program has a downside, it is cost — $2,750 for chamber members and $3,500 for nonmembers. It offers scholarships, and let’s hope it can offer more of them. We desperately need leadership, because for every Pittsburgh, there’s a Detroit or a Cleveland.

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