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August 4, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

New life for Sahara as the state Capitol?

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Leila Navidi

Why not reopen the domed Sahara hotel on the Las Vegas Strip as the new state Capitol building?

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J. Patrick Coolican

On the Sahara’s final weekend, I walked into a pathetic scene: A bunched crowd of patrons, arms outstretched, reaching and yelling as employees distributed free T-shirts. It was like something out of a disaster zone where the crowd is pushing up against the relief workers giving out sacks of food.

Later, I looked out a 24th-story window of the Sahara’s Tunisia Tower at the sad empty lot across the street — it was once to be “City Center II: Attack of the Inflated Real Estate Bubble” — and walked around the decaying north end of the Strip. I ruminated on our troubles here in Las Vegas and in Carson City, where the state Legislature will yet again fail to solve our myriad problems.

Later, this got me to thinking, and I came up with a classic win-win: We should move the state capital to Las Vegas, and make the Sahara the Capitol building.

Hear me out.

Doesn’t it strike you as ridiculous that nearly three-fourths of the state’s population live 450 miles from the place where, according to the state constitution, we have the right to “instruct” our representatives and “petition the Legislature for redress of Grievances”?

It would be like if people in Massachusetts had to travel to Harrisburg, Pa., to lobby their legislators. Actually, Harrisburg is 50 miles closer to Boston than Carson is to Vegas.

How did this happen anyway? I talked to Nevada historians Michael Green and Guy Rocha and got the story. It’s interesting history.

In 1857, Brigham Young instructed his Mormon followers to return from western outposts, including what is now Carson City, to defend the Mormon church against the federal army. Abraham Curry, John Musser, Benjamin Franklin Green and Francis Marion Proctor came over from California and snapped up the newly available land. Curry emerged as the leader. He owned a hotel and some other businesses in what is now Carson. The group hoped Carson would be the capital of some new territory and eventually a state, so they set aside some land for a “capital square.”

Congress made Nevada a territory March 2, 1861. Where to put the capital? Virginia City was the territory’s most important city because of the mining boom.

But Curry persuaded the territory’s most important politician, William Stewart — “He was the Bill Raggio of his time,” Rocha says — to help broker a deal.

The deal was that all competing towns would become the county seat of their own newly created counties. This is why Nevada has massive counties, except for the cluster of five all bunched around Carson City — all participants in the Stewart deal.

See? It was all a dirty land deal.

So what is the effect of having a capital that’s like a desert island with snow?

Well, who can afford to travel to Carson City to play a face-to-face role in the legislative process? Who do you think?

Lobbyists for Big Business and Big Labor. (A few lobbyists and legislators have taken a little too much to heart the constitution’s phrase “instruct their representatives.”)

And who seems to win nearly every time in Carson City? Big Business and/or Big Labor.

Rocha notes that when students have trekked to Carson this session on their buses, everyone knows they have to return to classes and jobs, while the lobbyists remain.

But think of the influence regular people in Las Vegas could have on the Legislature if lawmakers met at the Sahara. It basically has a dome. There’s ample free parking and plenty of sundries over at the World’s Largest Gift Shop.

Perhaps MGM Resorts would allow students to use the empty lot across the street for demonstrations.

Also, think of the great scandals we would enjoy as legislators got themselves sideways on the Strip.

The historian Green, who, I confess, planted the Sahara-as-capital idea in my head, suggests that Gov. Brian Sandoval could live at the Sahara: “I hear the pool is nice.”

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