Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The broncs and bulls are bucking at the Thomas & Mack Center, boots are scooting on dance floors up and down the Strip, and cash is flowing all around.
The National Finals Rodeo is in full swing, providing an annual reminder of the good that can happen when Las Vegas thinks big and makes bold moves.
Las Vegas faced a tough fight in 1984 when a group of local business and community leaders made a bid to bring the rodeo here. Oklahoma City had played host to the event for years and had no intention of giving it up, but Las Vegas desperately needed it to help bring visitors to town during what was then a dead month on the Strip. It was also a key part of efforts to counteract loss of tourism and gaming business to Atlantic City, where casino gambling had been legalized in the late 1970s.
It took a commitment of $1.8 million in prize money — twice what Oklahoma City was willing to offer — to bring the NFR to Las Vegas.
That was a lot of money then, and the resort industry had to put up even more in recent years to beat back bids from Dallas and Orlando, Fla., to grab the event away from us. But in putting up $16.5 million annually in purse and sponsorship for the NFR in 2014, the resort industry and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority locked it down for 10 years.
The moral here is that in order to stay competitive in the world of entertainment and tourism, it’s necessary to spend money to make money.
To the community’s credit, we’ve done that in recent years by investing tax dollars in the $1.8 billion Raiders stadium and the $1.4 billion expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
On a much broader scale, both of those projects will pay dividends for decades to come, just like the NFR.
Once the 60,000-seat Raiders stadium opens in 2020, the team’s home games will be the equivalent of adding major conventions to the calendar on seven or eight weekends a year. Meanwhile, the convention center expansion not only will play a key role in helping Las Vegas retain major shows like CES and SEMA, but gives us the opportunity to add new ones while beating back competition from other major convention destinations.
Now, however, we need to keep right on pushing.
For Las Vegas to retain its position as a leading global tourism spot, we desperately need to invest in our transportation system. One critical need is a light rail system that would connect McCarran International Airport with the Strip, an enhancement that would give travelers an inexpensive and convenient way to get around Las Vegas. Meanwhile, an existing light-rail project connecting Maryland Parkway with downtown and the medical district must move forward full speed.
The reasons for light rail would more than fill this space, but the upshot is that traffic capacity is maxed out in and around the tourist corridor. We simply can’t add more cars, which is a major problem on two fronts. One, it diminishes the visitor experience for tourists to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Two, it makes it difficult for the thousands of Las Vegans who are employed along the Strip to get to and from work.
So we simply must invest in our transportation systems.
Other needs include ongoing development of the UNLV School of Medicine, the university overall and our public schools.
Granted, we’re talking about needs that will cost a lot more than landing a rodeo and keeping it in Las Vegas.
But the thinking needs to be the same. The group that brought the NFR to Las Vegas, which included gaming icon Benny Binion and events visionary Herb McDonald, were thinking well beyond 1985 when they roped the event away from Oklahoma. And as a result, Decembers remain a lot more lively and lucrative in Las Vegas three decades later.
With new leaders on their way to Carson City, the Clark County Commission and elsewhere, Las Vegas is poised to enter 2019 with a strong economy and enjoying population growth that has now pushed us past Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo., on the list of the nation’s biggest metros.
It’s a perfect time to think big, act boldly and take steps that, 30 years from now, have the potential to transform Las Vegas as much as the NFR has changed the holiday season in the community since 1985.