The Rise, Fall and Reboot of UNLVNow

Watching the ascent and descent of Las Vegas stadium projects is an oddly soothing hobby for Valley news-watchers, something akin to parking on that narrow strip of blacktop along Sunset Road and watching the planes come and go at McCarran: You know what’s going to happen, but the audacity of it all is still exhilarating.

But UNLVNow—the massive $900 million effort to bring a 60,000-seat stadium and a state-of-the-art student residential village to UNLV—seemed different from our usual speculative sports-venue schemes. First of all, it had an actual purpose: The university’s football program needs an on-campus venue to flourish, and its academic programs would benefit immensely if the university could rise above its commuter-school roots. Second, it had the passionate and creative backing—to the tune of $360 million—of a company that not only had built one of the premier arenas on the West Coast, Los Angeles’ Staples Center, but which as owner of the off-Strip Silverton hotel-casino also had a stake in the health of our Valley.

So it was hard not to be taken aback by the suddenness with which Majestic Realty was jettisoned from the UNLVNow project so that the university could work more closely with the major Strip hotel-casino operators. Since the project was announced on February 1, 2011, Silverton President Craig Cavileer—Majestic boss Ed Roski’s man in Vegas—has been dreaming, cajoling and cheerleading it into existence. An Austin, Texas, kid who had lived in Las Vegas since 1998, Cavileer wanted to bring a bit of Longhorn-style, college-town spirit into the heart of what locals once upon a time called Maryland Parkway University—a school that all too often felt like an assemblage of mildly associated buildings clustered just off an increasingly shabby street.

From the start, the plan was a gourmet confection—both delicious and far too filling. At the introductory press conference, UNLV President Neal Smatresk was mooning over—of all things—the associated upscale shopping village, which would take up precious territory on the university’s landlocked campus. But despite the jarring sound of the word “Abercrombie” in the context of a project intended to stir organic student life, there was much to admire in Cavileer’s ambition and obvious sincerity—and in Smatresk’s kid-in-a-candy-store glee. Surely, UNLVNow’s problems of scale and misplaced priority would be worked out during the long and bruising path to approval. After all, financing for the plan would be dependent on the Legislature’s creation of an enterprise district at UNLV, so that taxes generated by the development could be used to cover its construction costs. It would also depend on political support and additional funding from other big-time players in the Valley.

It seemed reasonable enough to expect that the support would materialize: The stadium would bring the kind of events to Las Vegas that had never been able to find a home here—and that meant more rooms filled at the city’s resorts. And the tax district would only vacuum up dollars that would never have been generated in the first place if it weren’t for UNLVNow. Early on, the project’s leaders didn’t even call this “public funding”: If you didn’t buy tickets and popcorn (and, presumably, Abercrombie jeans) at UNLVNow, the whole thing didn’t cost you a dime. And if you did, it simply meant your sales tax was targeted toward an amenity you were actually using.

But with the state still reeling from the recession and the word “tax” a form of political hemlock, the 2011 Legislature wanted no part of UNLVNow. The project’s backers licked their wounds, continued with their planning and all eyes turned to 2013. As this year’s Legislature approached, there was plenty of optimism: With the capable Don Snyder—the former chairman of the board for The Smith Center for the Performing Arts—at the helm, Majestic Realty as invested and ambitious as ever, and the cloud of the recession lifting, UNLVNow seemed closer to reality than any off-Strip athletic venue since the one-two punch of the Thomas & Mack Center and Cashman Field in 1983.

But then, once again, the Valley’s feet got cold—real cold. UNLVNow was too big for either the state or the big political-economic power players on the Strip to swallow. Days before Snyder’s March 27 decision to terminate UNLVNow’s agreement with Majestic, our Matt Jacob filed a story, “UNLV Now: A Proposal for Modesty,” for Vegas Seven’s print edition. He recommended a revision to the project that would allow it to be approved and executed in smaller phases, with each successive phase being altered to respond to the successes, failures and unexpected developments of the earlier phases:

“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.”

The paragraph is prescient—and you should read the rest of the piece for Jacob’s sober-but-hopeful thoughts on UNLVNow’s future. But the scenario he describes would have been far more sporting than UNLV’s apparently unilateral and poorly elucidated (Cavileer says he’s still waiting for “a forthright explanation”) severing of ties with Majestic. The developer had poured a great deal of time, money and passion into an effort to revolutionize the UNLV campus; it’s not a stretch to say that UNLVNow was Cavileer’s baby. Perhaps Majestic’s plans were bloated and misdirected, and maybe the university had plenty of political and financial reasons to end the relationship (Ed Roski may be a billionaire, but MGM Resorts practically owns a state). But in a town dominated by a small handful of hotel-casino corporations, it’s hard not to see the swift dismissal as another reminder of the obvious: From Carson City to Maryland Parkway, the oligarchs call the shots around here. UNLV saw that it needed to play with the big kids, and if that meant pushing an old pal aside, so be it. Sportsmanship can wait till after the stadium’s built.

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