City Government: The Place to Be

Former Assemblyman and state Sen. Bob Beers recently announced his candidacy for a Las Vegas City Council vacancy. At about the same time, both the Mob Museum and the new Las Vegas City Hall opened. The confluence of Beers’ announcement and the opening of the two long-awaited projects demonstrates how the city has moved to the forefront of a political scene once dominated by the county.

During the boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Clark County Commission was the place to be. Strip resorts were Nevada’s economic engine, and, since the Strip isn’t actually in the city, the Commission was their local governing body. So, legislators who preferred not to spend months at a time in Carson City and felt they could have more influence at home gave up jobs running the state to run, or try to run, Clark County. Other ambitious people moved up to the Commission from city councils and other government bodies.

That’s why the Commission includes members from the Legislature (Chris Giunchigliani and Tom Collins), the Las Vegas Council (Larry Brown and Lawrence Weekly), the county school board (Susan Brager and Mary Beth Scow) and the state board of regents (Steve Sisolak).

But now city governments have become more important and, in the process, more controversial. Henderson is having issues with its police department, North Las Vegas could go bankrupt, Boulder City always has enjoyable internal warfare, and Las Vegas has the Goodmans.

Last year, a mayoral election that seemed likely to be a melee became a cakewalk for Carolyn Goodman. But her opponents included two county Commissioners (Giunchigliani and Brown) who would have given up actual power but gained perceived power as spokesperson for the city and perhaps even international status, with or without a martini glass or showgirls.

In addition, Bob Coffin won a City Council seat after being term-limited out of the Legislature—another sign that city government may be becoming the place to be. Consider the action going on downtown alone:

• The Mob Museum’s opening proved controversial, not merely because of idiots who claimed without seeing it that it would be a tribute to organized crime (I am involved in it, and it isn’t a tribute). Others were upset at its $42 million cost, which included redevelopment funds that had to be used on—get ready—redevelopment, plus grants and money raised through assorted fees and programs. Compared with other projects of this scale, though, the museum’s creative team worked on a shoestring. Meanwhile, the city preserved a historic building for the purpose the feds required for its preservation: a cultural center. The result was a museum one observer described as looking like the kind we find in Washington, D.C. In other words, Las Vegas did something unusual: went first-class outside a hotel.

• The Smith Center for the Performing Arts will open with all manner of classical, Broadway, jazz and other performances. For downtown, this means more people, more business and more possibilities. And with performers leaving their old digs at UNLV, new partnerships might be necessary between the city and higher education. (One such partnership has already been up and running for several years—the Historic Fifth Street School, home of UNLV’s Downtown Design Center.)

• The Neon Museum opens later this year, adding to a family of museums in the urban core that includes the Mob Museum, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, the Old Mormon Fort, the Springs Preserve and the Discovery Children’s Museum (which will move into The Smith Center in November).

Not to minimize new hotels and businesses and other redevelopment. But these kinds of cultural amenities are important, and they suggest important issues and duties ahead for Las Vegas’ leadership as the city matures. The big money may still be on the County Commission’s territory, but city government is meaningful in 2012—and that’s a step in the right direction.