The Locals vs. Tourists Balancing Act

Las Vegas is at its best when its attractions appeal to both

A rendering of the arena that may soon be home to an NHL franchise. | Rendering courtesy MGM Resorts International

A rendering of the arena that may soon be home to an NHL franchise. | Rendering courtesy MGM Resorts International

Sometimes, it can seem that life in Southern Nevada is a big zero-sum game. With limited money to spend in both the private and public sectors, this dilemma is ever-present: Invest in infrastructure and attractions that will draw more tourists and pump more money into the economy, or add more services and institutions that enhance the quality of life for those of us who live here?

It seems a fair question. After all, when was the last time you saw a tour group at a local high school (presidential photo-ops excepted)? And how many residents are really among the masses crowding the Strip to see the latest spectacular?

This is the spirit that frames the debate over investing in soccer stadiums, all-purpose arenas and museums. But when you exclude the extremes—such as high-end Strip restaurants and DMV offices—you realize there is no zero-sum game. Indeed, there are plenty of out-of-state license plates at ostensibly “locals” casinos, just as there are plenty of locals ice skating at temporary rinks at Strip casinos or taking in the views from atop the High Roller. In fact, the best attractions have something for both groups.

These days, the happiest “collisions” between local and visitor interests are happening in and near Downtown, which only makes sense. In the earliest days of Las Vegas, Fremont Street was the place where locals ate, shopped and went for entertainment. Many worked there, and most lived within walking distance of their offices. Meanwhile, the train station brought an influx of visitors who saw the sights amid locals’ daily routines.

Then came the Great Suburbanization, and most (but not all) locals left the expanding tourist corridor. But in recent years, the critical mass that Downtown needed to become a bona fide city center that blends commerce with life quality has begun to coalesce. Yes, the Fremont Street Experience is still dominated by casinos catering primarily (though not exclusively) to visitors, but the surrounding blocks are seeing some interesting hybrids.

For proof, look no further than the Mob Museum, which Oscar Goodman championed as an attraction that would both document an important aspect of this city’s history and be of sufficient interest to pull visitors away from the Strip and Fremont Street for a few hours. There were many skeptics at the outset, but the former mayor has been vindicated: Since the Mob Museum opened in February 2012, it has won local awards for best museum in town and been hailed as a must-see attraction for visitors. On any given day, as many as one-fifth of museum attendees are Las Vegans, and 60 percent of the museum’s members live in the area.

Even institutions whose target audiences are clearly residents benefit from out-of-towners. With its diverse programing, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts has been luring tourists off the Strip for nearly three years. Meanwhile, its neighbor, the Discovery Children’s Museum, also draws its share of non-local customers with its straightforward mission: to engage children and spark their interest in learning. It’s not as catchy a slogan as, say, “What happens here stays here,” yet an informal survey on a recent weekday showed that at least 10 percent of the visitors were not locals. People do still bring their kids to Las Vegas, whether they are here to visit family, or for business or pleasure, and having a place like Discovery only gives them another reason to return.

With that in mind, it seems developers and civic leaders would be wise to bet on projects that are accessible to visitors and have enduring appeal for locals. Could a soccer stadium fit the bill? It’s possible. Certainly, MGM Resorts International and AEG are all-in on this concept, as construction is well under way on their arena behind New York-New York. While it will doubtless have its calendar filled with the same kind of one-off events found at other Strip venues, the grand plan is to secure an NHL—and after that, perhaps an NBA—franchise as an anchor tenant.

Should that happen, the team’s only chance for long-term survival would be if it appeals to both the 2 million-plus residents who live here and our 40 million annual guests.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.