Sunday, May 15, 2011 | 2 a.m.
To an outsider, it might seem that Las Vegas is in the throes of an identity crisis, shaken to our roots, betrayed by an economy that had always been faithful to us. We’re struggling to recover and regroup and wondering whether, and how, we need to redefine ourselves.
These cynics might be chortling at our misery, at how our grand, greedy plan went south and that we had it coming. Indeed, the town’s marketing geniuses propped up our huge ego with their success in promoting tourism and gaming.
Thanks to the witty (and now tiresome) “What happens here” campaign, seductive player-loyalty programs, resorts’ glossy media buys, carefully planted travel stories, aggressive direct mail efforts and sophisticated international marketing strategies, the world’s collective image of Las Vegas is of beautiful people grinning ear to ear and having the times of their lives when they come here to gamble, lie poolside, see a show, indulge in fine dining or shop at the world’s finest shops. We’ve got the best minds in the business seducing tourists to spill their money. Vegas, baby!
But lost in that promotional mix was the imperative that we also sell the rest of Las Vegas. Maybe the marketing folks thought the rest of the town was too hard to sell.
Nationally renowned neurologist Jeffrey Cummings remembers the reaction from the medical and research communities when he was recruited from UCLA’s Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research to become director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: “They wondered whether my moving to Las Vegas was the first sign of cognitive deterioration.”
And Michael Yackira, NV Energy president and CEO, remembers being courted by the utility eight years ago to leave Boca Raton, Fla., “and I thought that was great because I assumed I’d be working in Reno.” When he learned he’d have to live in Las Vegas, he balked at even being interviewed. His wife pushed him, and taking the job “was the best decision I ever made, from both a career perspective and in terms of joining a community.”
Fact is, there is much to sell about Las Vegas beyond the Strip, and we need to. Otherwise, what are the chances of recruiting someone from Minneapolis or Buffalo when their other options might include Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque? Vegas? Ha! What’s Vegas got going for itself? You’re dying, man. Your homeowners are underwater. You’ve got awful unemployment. You’re at the top of all the wrong lists and at the bottom of all the good lists.
Las Vegas doesn’t conjure up images of fine arts, religious values and generous philanthropy. To outsiders, we’re fixated on pop culture, we’re hedonistic and we’re out for everyone else’s money. Oh, and that we all live on the Strip. My son remembers working at the Venetian and being asked by an elderly couple what it was like living here. My son pointed to the Sands Convention Center. “That’s where all the employees live,” he told the couple. “We hardly ever see daylight.” The couple nodded knowingly.
That’s how people imagine life in Las Vegas. But the reality is that we have myriad communities within our valley based on where we live, where we work, how we play, where we pray and how we help one another. But that side of us isn’t being told to anyone. What, we’re bashful? Or are we still allowing ourselves to be defined by the Strip? It’s the world’s most garish industrial park, not our community center.
In fact, Las Vegas is much closer to an all-American city than outsiders perceive. That explains, for instance, why so many products are test-marketed here; we are a melting pot. Eight in 10 people who live here were born elsewhere, and they bring a piece of their hometowns to our valley.
So here’s what we need to do. Someone should put me in charge of running the marketing campaigns for the Nevada Development Authority or the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t sell the glitz and glamour. I’d showcase the heart and soul that is Las Vegas, that marks us as not just one of the sexiest destinations in the world, but a community where we are invested in one another’s welfare and future.
I can hear the cynics’ cackles but please, indulge me on this.
I’d start this feel-good campaign with a TV spot, sort of the way California sells itself with sweeping aerial video of San Diego’s waterfront, Hollywood, Big Sur, the redwoods and wine country.
Here’s my story board, and it’s all real — no actors, no fake smiles, no entertainers with sculpted bodies, no spray-on tans. Just real people living as community. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself.
Opening scene: the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and a shot of the marquee promoting the Broadway road show “The Color Purple,” then a close-up shot of a poster recruiting children for dance classes under the tutelage of a Nevada Ballet Theatre coach. Next, an exterior shot of our Frank Gehry building, askew and melting in the sun, where, inside, researchers and doctors at the Ruvo Center are conducting unprecedented research into Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Then a change of pace: walking through the crowd in the Arts District on a balmy First Friday evening, then shifting to Fremont East where a towering, neon martini glass illuminates a street band, and local hipsters are meeting up with friends at the Griffin or one of the other impossibly hip bars.
Now we’ll head over to the Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas, where tax preparers, volunteering through the United Way, help the struggling poor fill out their tax returns, allowing them to collectively claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax refunds due them that they might not otherwise have gotten. With a wide shot, we peek inside the warehouse at Three Square, the big community food pantry. Next, a tight shot of the AIDS fundraising walk, and bring into focus two guys who help raise so much money for it, Penn & Teller.
For a different backdrop, we’ll bring the camera into a Henderson living room where a dozen members of St. Thomas More Catholic Community gather every week to share how Scripture shapes their daily lives. The group includes an executive with Catholic Charities, a casino floor manager from the Mirage, a Goodwill employee, an elementary school vice principal, a retired ballerina, a United Way honcho, a department store switchboard operator, a real estate agent, an accountant and my wife and me. Then let’s head over to the no-kill animal refuge operated by the Nevada SPCA and meet some of the volunteers who care for hundreds of dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. We’ll conclude the commercial at a fundraising gala for the Nevada Cancer Institute or the Keep Memory Alive Foundation.
These are some of the communities that distinguish Las Vegas — knots of people who share affinities or are banding together to improve the quality of life in the Las Vegas Valley. This is what we need to be selling, because this is what keeps us here.
You may scoff at my Pollyanna view of Las Vegas, but it is, in fact, accurate. Some of these communities are not readily apparent to newcomers but they are absurdly easy to join. There may be an old guard in town, the folks who went to school together at Clark or Gorman high schools, but they’re outnumbered by the rest of us. Organizations are starved for new and committed members, trust me.
Many people hold to the notion that “community” presents itself in a setting, such as a quaint downtown with storefront awnings and sidewalk tables. Maybe that’s true in an East Coast city that is residentially dense and rich with traditions and loyalties, where you bump into your neighbors while walking to the subway or stopping at the butcher on your way home.
But Las Vegas can’t build a community around those sorts of touchstones. We’re new as cities go; we’re not blessed with generations-old bakeries or hobby stores. And we have New West sensibilities, living in suburbs and driving to work. What chance do we have of building friendships when our backyards are protected by 6-foot-high cinder-block walls, there are no front stoops and our neighbors work different shifts than we do? The only way I know we have neighbors on the right side of our house is by the movement of cars in the driveway and the changing light patterns inside their windows.
Community-building has lagged here for another reason, says Rich Harwood, who is an authority on building communities and engaging the citizenry. He notes we had become so prosperous, we had become the New Frontier, where individualism and independence trump social connections. People poured into our valley for its abundance of jobs. Our welcome mat was inscribed “The American Dream.” People bought homes and then they bought huge pickup trucks that pulled boats to Lake Mead. We didn’t need one another. We felt comfortable in our greedy skin, making bank and dismissing our neighbors with that glib Vegas wave. “Hi, neighbor (whatever your name is).” Well, Harwood wasn’t quite that harsh. His words were softer: “Everyone was focusing on themselves.”
But now, in hard times, is when we should be building communities, at least based on his definition of what it means. “Community is people needing and helping one another, for things that are larger than ourselves, and that we’re in it together. It’s not so much a sense of place as it is a sense of belonging.”
Usually, the strongest communities are the ones that orbit around schools and children, he says. That focus, Harwood says, is lacking in Las Vegas. (The Asian Chamber of Commerce directs many of its resources to education, offering $30,000 in scholarships annually and helping to place 20 UNLV students into business internships. “We want to help make a difference,” says Vida Lin, the chamber president. “We can overcome anything in this town. We built a city out of the desert. Las Vegas is amazing.”)
There are, in fact, many definitions of community. For Alan Feldman, an MGM Resorts executive, it’s the people who work to make Las Vegas a better place than it is. (Gaming companies such as his are steeped in a culture of encouraging their workers to engage in community affairs and charities in a multitude of ways.) For D. Taylor, head of the Culinary Union, community is people pursuing a shared sense of purpose — improving the environment or education, for instance, or helping struggling homeowners deal with foreclosure. For Jan Jones, a former Las Vegas mayor and an executive with Caesars Entertainment, community means claiming ownership of where you live. For Larry Ruvo, a liquor distributor and founder of the Ruvo Center, community means “building a place that our kids can be proud, and want to return to.” For Hae Un Lee, CEO of Lee’s Discount Liquor, community means cutting a check for turkeys for Catholic Charities — and then going to the facility with your family to serve meals. For Maureen Peckman, who is developing business opportunities in Nevada for the Cleveland Clinic, community is palpable when people work together to improve our quality of life. For Tony Hsieh, community is formed by a workplace culture in which his Zappos employees have fun working together — and just as much fun hanging out after work. And for Cass Palmer, the recently installed president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Nevada and for years a human resources executive in the gaming industry, community starts with employers instilling in their workers an ethic to get involved in nonprofit organizations that serve the valley.
Really, they’re all saying the same thing: Community is a band of like-minded people who share a sense of belonging and/or are focused on helping one another for a larger good. Las Vegas is literally filled with such communities, but outsiders don’t see them because they’re not displayed on neon pedestals.
There is some thinking that “community” can rise out of specific places — such as the entertainment district springing up along East Fremont Street. I put that to the test on a recent Friday night, asking people at the Griffin and the Downtown Cocktail Room why they chose those places for a drink. The general response: I’m here with co-workers. I asked them if they knew anyone else at the bar, other than their colleagues. They looked around, stretched their necks, squinted, and said no, they didn’t know anyone else other than their immediate party. “Cheers,” this wasn’t. Their community was more the workplace than where to unwind after work.
On the other hand, there is sweeping consensus that the Smith Center, scheduled to open next year, will nurture community by providing a source of civic pride as well as creating a “there” there, an anchor for the emerging Symphony Park complex in downtown Las Vegas.
“That center is important because it was built with the community in mind, not as a destination for tourists. That’s a tangible symbol — and a proof point — that Las Vegas is moving in a new direction,” Harwood told me. “It demonstrates to a businessperson who’s thinking about moving to Las Vegas what kind of community people in Las Vegas are trying to create, based on philanthropy and people coming together to do something for their community.”
And he kept talking about Las Vegas and our future, and although it sounded a bit sappy, I want to buy into it. “This is what I believe about Las Vegas: It has an entrepreneurial spirit and a can-do attitude, and it’s heading into a new era. Of all the cities in the country, I look at Las Vegas as a place where we can demonstrate what a community will look like. There are more people today pulling together in Las Vegas than at any other time in the past 10 years — because people realize they can’t go it by themselves anymore. I’m more hopeful about Las Vegas now than I was for it at the height of its economic boom.”
Maybe I’ll put Harwood in my promotional video showcasing what Las Vegas is really about.
This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of VEGAS INC, a sister publication of the Sun.