UNLVNow: A Proposal for Modesty

Illustration by Thomas Speak

Illustration by Thomas Speak

Whenever someone asks, “What’s the one part of life you’d love to do over again?” my answer is always the same: college years, hands down. Which is why 18-year-old me would look at the UNLVNow proposal—with its 60,000-seat mega-events center serving as the centerpiece of a new, vibrant campus community that presently doesn’t exist—and thrust two thumbs up. Way up. But nearly a quarter century has turned that carefree 18-year-old kid into a 42-year-old married father of two, one of whom is a high school freshman. So when 42-year-old me looks at those UNLVNow renderings, he sees dollar signs—about 900 million of them, the estimated cost of just the mega-events center itself. Which begs this question:

Do we really need UNLVNow … now? Or, more to the point, do we really need this UNLVNow?

Throughout the project’s gestation period, those in charge—including point man Don Snyder and Ed Roski, whose Majestic Realty has committed to picking up 40 percent of UNLVNow’s tab—have been determined to go all-in. They’ve taken a grandiose, Las Vegas Boulevard-like approach—you know, build it as big and beautiful as possible, fling open the doors and pray the masses pour in. But, given the costs involved, the amount of UNLV real estate that would be consumed and Nevada’s long-standing allergy to creating special tax districts for stadium projects, it may be more prudent to steal a page from suburban master-planning: Start with Phase I, and leave plenty of room for Phases II, III and IV.

This is not to say that UNLVNow, as currently conceived, is without merit. After all, the project would provide that first-class living, learning and social environment that college-bound kids in the 21st century so often seek. Just as important, it would allow UNLV to forever shed its “commuter school” image.

But all this could be accomplished—and more expeditiously—if Snyder and his team didn’t shoot for the moon from the start.

Question: Does UNLV need a state-of-the-art student village? Or would a cluster of new dormitories surrounding a nice courtyard, plus a couple of student-friendly retail offerings (a deli, a dry cleaner, a corner store with lots of ramen cups) begin to create that much-needed collegiate atmosphere?

Does UNLV need a 60,000-seat on-campus stadium with hundreds of VIP suites and a 100-yard video board (the largest of its kind)? Or would a 35,000-seat stadium with modern amenities and room for expansion suffice?

Granted, the mere suggestion of a phased-in UNLVNow would probably scare Roski and his millions out of town—the man behind the Staples Center in Los Angeles didn’t choose the name “Majestic” by accident. But it might provide easier access to monies that heretofore have been unattainable. Maybe state legislators who have fiercely opposed a special tax district—without which UNLVNow would likely die on the drawing board—would be willing to support it if the initial price tag were slashed. Maybe the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority—which recently committed a huge chunk of its budget to the initial phase of a $2.5 billion convention-center face-lift—could find, say, $50 million under the couch cushions, rather than the $125 million UNLVNow officials are reportedly seeking. And perhaps MGM Resorts International, which recently announced it was reconsidering its $20 million pledge after expressing concern about the size and scope of UNLVNow, would reconsider that reconsideration.

Then there’s the biggest benefit to choosing suburbia’s game plan over Las Vegas Boulevard’s: the flexibility to adapt to the unknown. If UNLVNow courts funding and approval for the entire current plan at once, it will probably have to build the whole thing as advertised, for better or worse, even if construction is spread out over time. But if supporters start by designing, funding and approving a chunk of UNLVNow, in time they’ll be positioned to respond to its successes, failures or unexpected results—and adjust those original blueprints accordingly.

Snyder, who certainly knows how to rally the masses, having been the chief fundraiser for The Smith Center, is absolutely right when he calls UNLVNow a “game-changer.” And it would remain every bit the game-changer if it started with baby steps—as much as that pains 18-year-old me to admit …

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