Even when Las Vegas struggles, it shines for development boss

Imagine growing up in a Las Vegas where members of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack showed up at your high school's events.

That's the Las Vegas that Somer Hollingsworth, president and chief executive officer of the Nevada Development Authority, knew as a teen. From seeing Sammy Davis Jr. make an appearance during his 1961 senior assembly at Rancho High School to eventually handling financial affairs for influential locals, including eccentric hotelier Howard Hughes and mobster and casino owner Mo Dalitz, Hollingsworth has witnessed Las Vegas at its most legendary.

Today, Hollingsworth -- who once got expelled from a local university -- is tasked with helping to guide Las Vegas away from its roots as an anything-goes gambling town toward a more economically diverse global city. On his agenda these days? New nationwide marketing initiatives and a kinder, gentler advertising approach.

Question: What was it like growing up here in the '50s and '60s?

Answer: Absolutely magic. The day we moved here from Texas, I fell in love with the place. It was like the movie "American Graffiti." We cruised Fremont Street every night until our wheels fell off. The Plaza wasn't there yet. That area was the Union Pacific depot at the west and the Blue Onion restaurant at the east. Up Fremont Street, there might be a fight somewhere with someone, and you'd circle around the Union Pacific depot and back down again, and cruise all night long. Because we were raised with gaming, we didn't pay much attention to it. It wasn't something we were excited about.

Question: What did you aspire to do for a living?

Answer: I came from very conservative parents, so the resort industry never appealed to me. I didn't really know what I wanted to be. I didn't care if I went to college or not, because you could make so much money here either way. But my dad decided I was going to college. At the time, there were two rival schools, Las Vegas High and my school, Rancho. We fought continually. Whenever we had the football game over Sir Herkimer's Bone, there was literally a riot after the game -- a knock-down, dragged-out fist fight so bad that the sheriff would circle the bleachers with dogs and cops and arrest 40 or 50 people. So I went from Rancho to Nevada Southern University (now the University of Nevada, Las Vegas), but so did everyone else. You were throwing people together who basically just fought for four years.

So Nevada Southern came to me after a year and said, "You're going to have to leave. You're causing problems and your grades aren't stellar." Within an hour, my dad had me working the worst construction job he could find. At the end of a year, he said, "Would you like to go to college?" I had an uncle on the board of regents at Eastern New Mexico University. I realized it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

My dad was good friends with the president of the Bank of Las Vegas, so when I graduated, he called him. I became their first management trainee with a college degree. I started as a teller. I can't tell you how great it was working for (bank founders) Parry Thomas and Jerry Mack. They taught you to make loans based on the client's integrity, not their collateral. Parry Thomas would say, "I don't care if he drags in gold bars, if he's a bad guy, he's not going to pay you back."

The greatest thrill today is to run into someone who says, "You gave me my first loan, and now I'm a millionaire." It makes you feel so good that you played that kind of role in their life.

Question: Do you remember Howard Hughes, Benny Binion, Mo Dalitz -- people like that?

Answer: Benny was a good friend of mine. I loved him dearly. I knew Mo Dalitz really well. At the time Howard Hughes was here, I was at Bank of Las Vegas. One day, when I went into my office, there was a big envelope on my desk with his will in it. It was the will Melvin Dummar was involved in. I believe it took three or four handwriting experts to determine it wasn't Hughes' writing. Melvin was a great guy, but this was one of the best forgeries ever, and the will was extremely complicated.

Question: Do you have any other interesting stories?

Answer: I respected Benny Binion as much as anybody. He did things with a handshake. I don't remember Benny ever asking us for money, because he had all the money he could use.

But I did get a call one day about a security guard at the Horseshoe Club named Don Johnson. Don had supposedly played football for the Raiders. He was a really tough, cantankerous guy. I got a call saying, "Mr. Binion needs you to come down here. Don is drunk and he is just raising hell."

I said, "Why are you calling me? I don't want to come down there if Don Johnson is drunk."

They said, "Mr. Binion needs you."

So I came in the back door, and they took me into the restaurant and then the casino, and Don is going berserk -- calling people names and going crazy. I was absolutely scared. I walked up behind him, took a big gulp and said, "Hey! What are you doing?" He spun around, just livid, and looked at me. I said, "We have lunch! Where have you been? We've been waiting for you."

He said, "Oh. OK." He turned around, came right in to eat and never said another word.

I also remember how Mo Dalitz saved the Las Vegas Country Club when it was in bankruptcy. It became a place where everybody was a member. There was no separation, no good guy-bad guy. Everybody was respectful and their word was their bond. With Mo Dalitz and the mob in place, if a busboy died and there was no money to bury him, the money appeared and it was taken care of. If the valet parkers didn't make money on a given night, Mo would take care of them. The guys who ran the hotels were really careful about making sure they gave back to the community. But as a rule, a lot of the money they made here was put in a bag and went someplace else. It was never reinvested here, and that's why the industry is better today. When Hughes came in, corporations got involved. The industry really began to develop with companies reinvesting capital. That was the key that was so important.

Question: You're a Las Vegas booster, but what's your least favorite part of today's much-bigger town?

Answer: That's tough. I still think it's the best town in the world, and when we start complaining, we often start nitpicking over products of our success. We cannot condemn a city that has been so good to so many people. And people need to understand the infrastructure that made us great is still here. We don't have to reinvent ourselves when the recession ends.

I wish the recession hadn't happened, but we have known forever that we were a one-trick pony when it came to state taxes. Unfortunately, it took a violent recession to wake us up, but it's great that everyone is talking about economic diversification. I don't care what the critics say, Vegas is magic. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. My big fear is, it's going to happen too soon, we won't get a bigger economic-diversification program going, and the next time a big recession happens, it's going to be brutal.

Question: What do you like best about Las Vegas today?

Answer: It's more cosmopolitan. We see things now that we never dreamed possible -- the medical centers, the quality and number of hospitals, a downtown performing-arts center that will take us to new levels. I like where the university system is going. I love that we can fly anywhere in world out of McCarran International Airport. It's the easiest airport in the world to get in and out of. The infrastructure here is so new. We also have some of the biggest fiber-optic pipes in the world here. We're one of the greatest collocation centers in America today. We have all of these things we need to tell the rest of the world about regarding why Las Vegas is such a good place to do business.

If you want to see success, look at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The $100 million a year they spend marketing Las Vegas tourism is the best return on investment I've seen. It's up to us to sell the business side of Las Vegas.

Question: How does your career in economic diversification compare with your banking career?

Answer: This has been the most enjoyable job I've ever had, because I feel like I'm on the pulse of this community. I don't want to get mushy, but my mom and dad and I, never in our lives did we dream we would have the kind of life we had when moved to Las Vegas. What Vegas did for us was so incredible. For me, the NDA is me paying back the community that gave my family this great life we could never have imagined or had anywhere else.

Question: How has attracting businesses to Las Vegas changed in the time you've been at it?

Answer: We always had a difficult time getting to companies. We never had a lot of money to market with. But about eight years ago, we developed a leveraged-media program that created in-your-face marketing. For every $1 we spent, we got $15 in free press on radio, TV and in newspapers worldwide.

The difference in the future, I think, is that if you're really going to sell the business climate going forward, you're going to be talking about lifestyle, about where people live or go to church, their ability to fly in and out of the community -- all of the stuff people deal with daily. We're going to sell in a more dignified manner. And we need a few more bucks to go nationwide. We can't just rely on Southern California. We've developed a system of what states we'll go after and why, and we've set up a digital process to check every piece of marketing to know if we're getting spikes of interest in those areas.

Question: What are your future goals?

Answer: I'd like to stay here as long as I can. The NDA is successful because of its incredible board and staff, not because of me. It has been a privilege and an honor to work with them. My goals are to see if we can take this to the next level and create a bigger situation in Las Vegas for nongaming companies than we have ever had before.

The only other thing I want is for people to fall in love with this community. If you're not in love with it -- if you just moved here, or if you're out of a job -- fall in love with it. Get involved and help us bring these companies in. If everybody who's in business here just asked companies they do business with out of state if they'd consider moving here, and talk to them about their concerns, that opens the door.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.