Las Vegas City Manager Betsy Fretwell was a 17-year-old high school student in Greenville, South Carolina, when she unknowingly got a glimpse into her future career. Participating in “government for a day,” Fretwell—whether by coincidence or fate—drew the job of city manager. “I got to play city manager for a day in my hometown, learned a lot about that job and thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’” she recalls.
Today, Fretwell is in her 15th year with the City of Las Vegas, serving as city manager for the last six. But the job wasn’t always “pretty cool.” She took over her current role in 2009, at the nadir of the Great Recession. “It was a really challenging time,” she says, but she wasn’t spooked. “I had been helping lead a lot of the effort to reengineer and reconfigure things at the beginning of the recession. So I felt like I was the right person, and it was the right time.”
While the City Council gets headlines, city managers actually do most of the important work, with responsibilities beyond representing the city at national meetings and being Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s opening act at the State of the City address. “You’re responsible for all of the employees, you’re responsible for compiling the budget,” Fretwell says. “You’re responsible for making sure the ordinances that are adopted and the resolutions that are approved by the mayor and council get implemented.”
A crucial part of Fretwell’s job is focusing on the long term, as she did in 2009, when it was both difficult to forecast the future and tempting to redistribute monies to keep operations afloat. “We continued to keep our capital plan moving to reshape our Downtown,” she says. “We actually made a significant play in building [the new] City Hall, the Mob Museum, two fire stations and [The Smith Center]. … We didn’t want to lose sight of what we wanted to be when we got through all of that.”
That investment was about more than a performing arts center or relocating city government. “It kept a lot of people employed who [otherwise] would not have been,” she says. “I had engineering firms and construction companies come to me and say, ‘Thank God for the City of Las Vegas, because otherwise we might not have survived.’” And if they hadn’t, she says, the negative effect would have spread. “We were going to need those craftsmen, those workers, those companies to take us to the next level,” Fretwell explains.
That next level is still a work in progress. “I think we all thought [Symphony Park] would be further along,” she says. “We were hoping that the performing arts center and the Ruvo Center would be enough of a strategic investment in those 61 acres to get those projects and the private market off the ground.” That said, there is some positive momentum. Citra has a development agreement for an assisted living facility near Symphony Park, and the city is re-examining and updating its Centennial Plan “based on what’s happening organically here, so developers know where [they] can plug in,” along with seeking public input on Downtown’s future.
What does Fretwell envision down the road? “You’re going to see a lot of better connections,” she explains. “More greenways and greenbelts. I think you’ll [also] see the beginnings of a mass transit system that will be iconic.” Fretwell is encouraged that both residents and visitors have shown an increased enthusiasm for Downtown. Her hope is that both factions feel “that this is their Downtown … where you can come to work, but you can also come to play, and it’s not necessarily the tourist playground that we’ve come to associate with a lot of the commercial activity here. There’s got to be a place for both.”
Fretwell also sees herself in the Vegas of the future. “There’s plenty of work for me to do here, and I really love this job. I love being a part of this community. I’d like to stick around.”