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Las Vegas: Signing Up For Change?

So I’ve just been in Las Vegas where Metro Program Director Bruce Katz gave a speech at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) on the next American economy and what might drive it in Southern Nevada. It was an interesting trip.

You might think, for example, that the program’s vision of a future American economy less dependent on consumption, more oriented to exports and innovation, and more focused on the fundamentals might not go down so well in Las Vegas.

Southern Nevada in many respects represents the opposite of that outlook. Most notably, only Orlando among large U.S. metros derives anywhere near as much of its private sector output from consumption activities like real estate, construction, eating, drinking, and hospitality as Las Vegas, for which the number was an astonishing 53 percent at the beginning of the recession.

And yet, for all that, Bruce’s speech went over well, I think, in part because the Las Vegans know their predicament is not fundamentally different from the nation’s (just exaggerated), and in part because Las Vegas has proven itself adept at reinventing itself.

There is, in this respect, no shame in suffering to a heightened degree the same problems that plague America as a whole today: neglect of the fundamentals, neglect of education, the lack of a long-term strategy for sustained prosperity. And for that matter, it seems like some of the wisest leaders in southern Nevada really do believe they can change and diversify. Because they have reinvented the gaming industry over and over, Nevada leaders believe the region can prosper in the next economy if its brings to bear some of the same focus it has brought to building a world-class tourism magnet to moving up the value chain in service exports, turning solar and geothermal resources into a true clean-energy specialization, and developing a true innovation capacity.

In that sense, what was most compelling at UNLV was the energy with which Las Vegas leaders—people like Jim Murren, the CEO of MGM Mirage--pronounced themselves ready to change course. 

These leaders do not question the need to lay the groundwork for a radically different sort of growth in southern Nevada. Instead, they are asking, as Brookings trustee and Las Vegas Sun president Brian Greenspun wrote yesterday, “When do we get started?” and then, “Who is going to lead it?”

Those are the right questions, but in a competitive world there’s no time to waste.

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