Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Robert Lang is co-director of the new Brookings Mountain West Initiative at UNLV, the first significant U.S. presence outside Washington for the famed think tank. Lang is an expert in urban affairs and has published widely on cities of the Intermountain West.
He and a rotating group of colleagues will come here to gather data on the West and try to push policymakers into smart solutions on issues such as growth, energy, sustainability and innovation. Lang will join the UNLV faculty and — at a moment when many educated professionals are leaving Las Vegas — he’ll move here in January. He’ll be joined by his wife and 8-year-old son.
What made you decide you wanted to live, teach and write here?
I’m long a student of the West. I’ve published a bunch of stuff on Western cities, and have always wanted to teach at a Western university. Las Vegas is a fun, vibrant place, so I picked UNLV.
When was the first time you were here, and what were your first impressions?
I was in Vegas in 1971. I was 12 years old. I was with my father, who was in the leasing business for large construction firms. I loved it. I thought it was the coolest place on earth. I was hoping to run into Ann-Margret and Elvis. I was too young to gamble but old enough to walk the Strip and have fun. My father won $1,800 and handed me $200. I was already up in Vegas.
Do you gamble?
Sports book. I like that I have information in the sports book. I have knowledge of what I’m betting on. I’m excellent at college football. Always bet on the Southeastern Conference.
What are Las Vegas’ strengths, despite the recession?
Unlike a place like Cleveland, where you barely notice the recession because there was no boom there, you notice the boom is finished here because this is where it was happening in the first place.
But despite the downturn, there’s still a good number of tourists coming here, and the question is, “What are the opportunities going forward?” and there are excellent opportunities, ways to leverage tourism to add additional industries.
Tell us what you mean.
Las Vegas has a strength in that it’s a place where big business events occur — trade shows and conventions. It needs to capture some of that meeting and convening and make it permanent. It’s done that with furniture with the World Market Center. When you grab something like World Market, you don’t just pick up furniture sales, you get design houses and architecture firms. Whole cities like Milan are design centers, and they thrive for it.
What weaknesses have been revealed by the recession?
Las Vegas has an over-reliance on tourism, an over-reliance on consumer spending precisely at a time when people are spending less.