What will be the biggest Vegas stories of 2012?

You must mean something other than housing, water, diversification, economics, elections and education, yes? Naturally, I’ll be watching downtown. With The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Mob Museum and the new City Hall coming online in the first quarter, the action should be fascinating.

The Smith Center is scheduled to be turned over by the contractor the first week of January. We’ve been promised a world-class facility, but can the project deliver on the hype and expectation? While much effort went into isolating the center—acoustically, that is, from helicopters and railroad noise externally, plumbing and HVAC noise internally—I’m more concerned with its social connection. Television advertising portrays The Smith Center as the “heart of the arts” for us, but it takes more than a city-centric location and a line drawn in the desert sand to morph a building into a social cornerstone. It takes a community that shares the vision.

The good news is that The Smith Center’s president and CEO, Myron Martin was the longtime director of UNLV’s Performing Arts Center—widely regarded as our beacon of traditional culture. Martin’s experience has helped shape an inaugural Smith calendar exhibiting diversity in both programming and pricing; many seats will cost much less than comparable marquees on the Strip, and preseason sales have been strong. That addresses the persistent historical challenge of off-Strip stage performances: Can they sell tickets against casino extravaganzas?

The Smith Center and the nearby City Hall could accelerate development of surrounding urban amenities, from restaurants and bars to shopping and educational facilities.

Beyond downtown, I’m watching what happens to the city’s “center ring,” the one mostly developed in the 1970s. Commercially, those areas have been hit harder than either the suburbs or downtown during the downturn. Cruising between Decatur and Rainbow on Charleston or Sahara has been a depressing chore the past few years as auto dealerships and big-box stores failed, and once-vibrant retail centers fell out of favor (Sahara Pavilion, anyone?). Thankfully, it seems that ethnic retail been has snapping up today’s cheaper rents, spreading north from Chinatown. Given today’s hyper-speed Las Vegas, the center ring could simultaneously emerge as our city’s core of affordable cultural diversity as downtown gentrifies. That would be something.