Economists say higher education key to business development

The key to economic diversification is collaboration between private industry and higher education, a panel of experts from four Western states said Friday at the UNLV.

Every state has economic development opportunities, but identifying those clusters of business development and attracting venture capital to fund them has proven to be a stumbling block for many regions struggling to recover from the recession.

Higher education is paramount to those efforts, Rob Lang, said director of Brookings Mountain West at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"There's a very close correlation between bachelor's degrees and technology," Lang said. "We have lived off an industry (gaming) that was a great sector to provide a middle-class living for someone with a high school diploma. We're where Pittsburgh and Detroit were. We cannot use this engine to provide for the state budget."

The economic conference, "Nevada 2.0: New Economies for a Sustainable Future," drew about 400 business and education leaders to hear out-of-state economic development experts discuss their strategies.

Ted McAleer, executive director of the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative's governing authority, said the universities in his state have recruited "star faculty," people who know how to build a team and obtain funding from the government. They're able to take an idea from paper to patent to production, he said.

"The University of Utah and Brigham Young University are very productive in terms of technology commercialization," McAleer said. "We went out and identified partners and brokered a relationship between the university and private industry."

It was a similar situation at Arizona State University, which works with partners in private enterprise and the government to develop a highly educated work force in Phoenix, said Todd Hardy, associate vice president of economic affairs at the university.

"One of the key things we focus on is the output of our students and how they fit into today's economy," Hardy said.

Building the infrastructure for research will lead to more access to capital, McAleer said. That can come from so-called "angel networks," or people of high net worth who are willing to invest in start-up companies.

Twenty years ago, the business climate in Texas was not what it is today, said Mike Rosa, vice president of the Dallas Regional Chamber. Government and business had to take steps to make sure people wanted to move to Texas, he said.

"Texas is a complicated state, a very widespread state with lots of large cities, all with different goals," he said. "Getting all of these forces -- urban vs. rural -- all working together over 20 years is actually quite a feat."

High property taxes were a disincentive for distribution centers and other businesses to come to Texas, so the tax structure was changed for companies that wouldn't be a burden on the school system, he said.

Nevada needs to focus on its assets and areas where it holds a clear advantage over other states such as "green fields" and geothermal energy, said Don Snyder, chairman of Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

"How do we get there from here? How do we get out of the discussion state and coalesce some action?" Snyder asked during an afternoon session on implementing changes.

"The theme that keeps running through this conference is vision," McAleer answered. "You need to take ideas on the table and look for a consensus vision that will get things started. There's going to be some sacrifices in the vision."

Tom Clark, executive director of Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and Denver Chamber of Commerce, said his city used a public works strategy including a new airport and convention center to get out of the 1985 recession.

"What you do in a recession is prepare your community for recovery," he said. "Remember one thing: A recession is a terrible thing to waste."

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at or 702-383-0491.