Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Las Vegas is out of whack, but that may not be a bad thing

Ask any longtime resident when the “good old days” of living in Las Vegas ended and you will get answers that range from when the mob left town (1986, the death of Anthony Spilotro), to the opening of first mega-resort (The Mirage, 1989) and the near-simultaneous capitulation of the Musicians Union Local 369 (taped music in showrooms, 1990), to when Wet ’n Wild water park and its old-school Strip neighbor, the Algiers Motel, were “disappeared” to make way for the never-realized promise of a new Ferris wheel-centered resort and the unfortunately named Krystle Sands condo tower (2004).

Corporatization has certainly had an effect on the feel of the Strip, but given the light-speed changes of a boom-and-bust town, it’s hard to conclude that one generation’s overhyped mega-resort won’t be the next generation’s fondest Vegas memory. After all, the small-by-comparison Mirage is already held up as “old Vegas” by those unimpressed by the brash CityCenter. Nostalgia is an emotional and personal thing.

But population figures are not, and neither are visitor-to-resident ratios in what remains—despite the dead-end rhetoric about diversification, a tourism-driven town. The Las Vegas metropolitan area has demonstrated a viable annual visitor-to-resident ratio of roughly 23-to-1. In 1970, when the Valley had a population of 273,000, the visitor count stood at 6.3 million. In 1985, 562,000 residents served 14.2 million visitors. In 1990, with a population of 852,000, Las Vegas broke 20 million visitors for the first time, and our visitor-to-resident ratio held steady at 23-to-1. By 2000, 1.56 million called Las Vegas home, serving 35.8 million visitors. In 2001, the population dropped to 1.48 million, and the visitor count eased off to 35 million.

For three decades, the historically viable ratio was holding fast in both growth and decline. The city had seemingly struck an inexplicable balance with itself. Las Vegas was a success, money was easy and even the members of the old guard were eating up the city’s relentless reinvention. As a striking metaphor for just how good we had it back then, in 1998, the spillways at Hoover Dam were cranked open for only the third time in history, allowing excess water to flow down the Colorado River. Yes, folks, Lake Mead was overflowing!

But something was about to change, and it has less to do with the effects of 9/11 or the recession than it does with a change in “us.” Las Vegas—long the place for many to escape for a weekend, but rarely a lifetime—was getting heavy press as a great place to earn a living. Cultural commentator Kurt Andersen actually meant it as a compliment when he called Vegas “the Detroit of the 21st century” in 1999, and many took it to heart. Early in the new century, a building boom that had started slowly in the mid-1990s was now blanketing wholesale chunks of outlying desert with affordable Stepford subdivisions. Sin City became the Fastest Growing City in America.

The impact of such a population boom should have been easy to spot, but it was hard to do through a downpour of cash that seemed to reach every pocket. Forget tourism; growth itself became the city’s raison d’etre. In 2002, that blind ambition resulted in an unnoticed-but-significant shift: After decades of maintaining a sustainable balance, our visitor-to-resident ratio dropped below 23. It has yet to recover. At the height of the housing boom—in 2006, when building, selling and buying houses seemed to be the Valley’s top industry—the ratio fell to 20.8-to-1. For 2010, it is projected to fall to 19-to-1.

That is a scary number. It is four fewer visitors per resident than when our economy was healthy, and 10—10! —fewer than the 29-to-1 ratio we had in 1995. We’ve heard the mantra again and again: Until visitors return, the Las Vegas economy will be tough. Based on visitor numbers of the past three years, our population is out of whack with reality. Las Vegas is economically (and, we are learning, ecologically) unable to support at least a quarter-million of its inhabitants. To return to the 29-to-1 levels of 1995, we would have to attract 17 million more visitors in 2010 than is projected. That’s not going to happen this year, or next year, or likely ever. Something has to give, and few folks seem willing to consider what is starting to emerge as a meaningful alternative: a smaller Las Vegas.

But a smaller Las Vegas likely means a better Las Vegas. It means we have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and put those lessons into action. It means that families can once again thrive here, not just survive. It means we can sustain a quality of life that appreciates the limitations of our environment without sacrificing a half-gallon of water just so another house can be built. It means we will have the breathing room to remember why people relocated here from the urban centers of the East Coast to begin with: to enjoy the freedom of open space, the freedom of making one’s own way, the freedom to succeed or to fail. It means we can reinvent ourselves yet again with a clear perspective, one unclouded by all that expectation we put upon ourselves during the boom and unfettered by waking up every morning feeling a responsibility to feed an uncontrolled need to grow at all costs.

This can happen by default. When people say Las Vegas is dying, they mean it’s dying for them. Let them go! When the media sobs about the “brain drain,” challenge them to write about the “brain gain”—a much more difficult task. When friends talk about moving here, think hard before you encourage them. Before long, Las Vegas will be back to the “good old days” of 11 years ago—even if it means only 1 million of us will be left. Yes, my mom is a showgirl; yes, my dad is a blackjack dealer; and yes, I live in a casino. So? I can wash my car in my driveway without the water police writing me a ticket.