Las Vegas may be breaking tourism records—May was the city’s busiest month ever, with more than 3.7 million visitors—but that doesn’t mean it’s time to get complacent. Governor Brian Sandoval must understand this, since he’s assembled a new committee that will spend the next year considering ways to create the infrastructure that will keep tourism—and the local economy—booming into the future.
It would be easy to say there’s no reason to fix what isn’t broken. It’s obvious that people really like coming to Las Vegas, they have plenty of ways to get here and ample entertainment opportunities when they arrive. But tourism, like just about every other sector of business, requires hitting a moving target. Tastes change, wallets get fatter and thinner, and behaviors shift.
Back in the 1930s, it took vision and courage to suggest that maybe there was another future for Las Vegas, one where gambling was the major attraction and cars the major form of transportation. Numerous attempts to build something to cater to such a business model failed for lack of investment—that is until Thomas Hull was able to (barely) get El Rancho Vegas open at the corner of Highway 91 and San Francisco Street in 1941.
Hull’s idea worked, so much so that within a decade of El Rancho’s debut, five casino resorts had opened and others were under construction. It took someone to look outside the moderately successful Fremont Street gambling halls to realize the potential for something bigger.
Likewise, when Jay Sarno built Caesars Palace in the mid-1960s, the smart money said there was no need for themed attractions in Las Vegas. And yet themes would define Las Vegas through the period of its grandest expansion in the 1990s. The message: Even when things are looking good, it always pays to investigate new possibilities.
So it made perfect sense for Sandoval to convene the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee, a new body under the Office of Economic Development. Chaired by Office of Economic Development director Steve Hill, the committee is comprised of community leaders (UNLV president Len Jessup, Clark County Commission chairman Steve Sisolak, Chamber of Commerce president Kristin McMillan, and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman) as well as members from the gaming industry (representatives from Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Boyd Gaming, MGM Resorts International, Station Casinos and Caesars Entertainment).
There’s a great deal at stake here. In his executive order creating the committee, the governor explained that, with the economy of Southern Nevada being “dependent” on tourism—and with increasing competition from rival destinations that are investing “significantly” in infrastructure improvements and new facilities—the time is now to seriously plan for a future in which Las Vegas remains “a world-class business and recreation destination.”
Experts will advise the group on various transportation and infrastructure issues at monthly meetings. And by next summer, the committee will deliver a report to the governor that will outline what improvements Las Vegas needs to maintain its growing tourism industry and, perhaps more importantly, how to pay for them.
The committee’s charge begins with evaluating existing public and private convention and entertainment facilities, then prioritizing whether there’s a need to reinvest in those venues or build new ones. It will also scrutinize all tourism-related transportation options, from McCarran International Airport to street-level mass transit, and analyze ways to pay for needed improvements.
Much of the committee’s tasks seem to intersect with the possibilities opened by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s forthcoming Global Business District, which is to be developed on the former Riviera site. The central thrust of the Global Business District will be to add nearly 1 million square feet of exhibit space to the LVCVA’s inventory, but one of the initiative’s other highlights is to develop a “multimodal, seamless transportation experience” that will benefit both residents and visitors.
With work on the Riviera site pending, now is the best time to take an even broader look at what needs to be done to keep our tourism industry competitive. Sandoval’s new committee has the potential to provide a blueprint—and funding formula—that will keep Las Vegas in the game for years to come.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.