For Would-Be Urban Visionaries, an $800,000 Question

How much is a good development idea worth in Las Vegas?

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Wouldn’t it be nice of the federal government to just give someone an $800,000 prize to come up with a cutting-edge redevelopment idea for Cashman Field? Or for the medical district around University Medical Center and Valley Hospital? Or maybe for a local business park that needs a shot of economic stimulation?

Maybe. Hopefully. But critics of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities grant wonder if the money would be better used to actually implement a plan, rather than as pure prize money for creating a good idea.

The City of Las Vegas partnered with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to award $800,000 in federal money to the redevelopment proposal that wins a global competition. The City was required to contribute another $250,000 to implement the winning idea, which caused some City Council members early this fall to question whether that money might be better spent. Plus, some local urban designers worry that the large prize will attract large, out-of-state firms with more resources, essentially pricing locals out of having an impact on their own community.

But the program is under way, and on November 20 the City Council awarded marketing firm Faiss Foley Warren a $90,000 contract to oversee the proposal and judging. Mayor Carolyn Goodman is expected to tout the launch of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative in the State of the City address on January 9. Multidisciplinary teams will have 10 months from the launch to submit proposals in round one for the selected redevelopment areas: Cashman Field, the medical district, a business park or an area already identified by the City as a “redevelopment area.” The top three finalists will have another six months to perfect their proposals.

Locals will be invited onto the judging panel, says Faiss Foley Warren managing partner Melissa Warren. She adds that Las Vegas firms are encouraged to enter the competition. “We’re going to make outreach locally, regionally and nationally,” Warren says. “But the strategy is not to blast it globally for anyone with an idea, but to very directly target urban-planning firms. We have a whole list of universities that have strong urban planning departments.” (That list includes UNLV.) The contract calls for Faiss Foley Warren to attract 50 “qualified teams.”

“If you’re seeking solid proposals and plans,” Warren says, “you’re going to get firms who put in hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.”

That’s exactly what concerns Ken McCown, director of the UNLV School of Architecture’s Downtown Design Center, which focuses on engaging the community in solving development challenges. “We figured out that you could get 18 ‘person years’ of jobs out of that $800,000,” McCown says, noting that employing locals is key to economic redevelopment. “[The Downtown Design Center] could basically look at these sites and come up with a plan within the community.”

But the Strong Cities’ program was set up by the Obama administration in 2011 as a new type of incentive. In 2012, the Economic Development Administration identified Greensboro, North Carolina, Hartford, Connecticut, and Las Vegas as communities that “lacked a comprehensive plan to reach their job creation and economic development goals,” and targeted them with “economic visioning challenges.” Las Vegas’ struggles were largely attributed to being hit hard by the recession.

“This program,” the EDA website says, “aligns with the administration’s commitment to use prizes and challenges to promote innovation.”