Economies of Las Vegas and the Strip no longer one and the same


We all know Las Vegas is constantly changing. This is obvious every time we back out of the garage or glance through the morning paper.

But sometimes the most profound changes are not evident to the naked eye or spelled out in the news. Take, for example, the evolution of the local economy.

The conventional wisdom holds that Las Vegas is a one-industry town. Certainly, a strong case can be made that gambling and tourism drive our economy. But consider this statistic, offered by respected local analyst Jeremy Aguero: Hotel-casinos represent 18 percent of the work force here.

Eighteen percent.

I'd bet that if you asked most Las Vegans what percentage of the work force is employed in a hotel-casino, they'd guess somewhere between 30 and 60 percent.

Those at the lower end of that range would have been close a decade ago, when hotel-casinos employed 28 percent of the work force. But over the past decade, only one in 10 jobs has been generated by the hotel-casinos.

These figures indicate that the Las Vegas economy is diversifying. This, in theory, is a good thing because it means we are less dependent on the fate of a single industry, and a potentially volatile one to boot.

But there's another side to the story. Las Vegas is less dependent on the hospitality industry, but that means it benefits less dramatically when that industry does well.

Tourism is booming. The Strip, in particular, is drawing record numbers of visitors. The Las Vegas brand is more visible and admired than ever. But what of the local economy beyond the bright lights of Las Vegas Boulevard South? Well, it's iffy at best.

"It's down by Southern Nevada standards," Aguero says, stressing that other parts of the country would kill for the modest softening we are experiencing.

Real estate is the primary culprit. Aguero says there are 28,000 houses on the market in Southern Nevada. Sales are down, foreclosures are up and home builders are laying off workers. Residential construction projects are on hold. All this is having a dampening effect on consumer spending, which is being felt in the neighborhood casinos and other businesses.

These economic challenges have arisen despite an unprecedented building boom on the Strip. It's difficult to comprehend the scope of the developments under way and planned. Consider just the dollars committed to some of the better-known (and likely to actually happen) projects:

-- CityCenter: $7.4 billion.

-- Plaza (site of New Frontier): $5 billion.

-- Echelon (site of Stardust): $4.8 billiion.

-- Fontainebleau: $2.9 billion.

-- Encore: $2.1 billion.

-- Cosmopolitan: $2 billion.

-- Palazzo: $1.8 billion.

-- Caesars Palace expansion: $1 billion.

-- Las Vegas Convention Center expansion: $900 million.

-- Harrah's/AEG sports arena: $500 million.

Total: $28.4 billion.

Another change occurring in Las Vegas that's not readily apparent: The city is embracing globalization.

It's not only a matter of attracting visitors from around the world. Although that is a growing piece of the tourism market, the key point here is that globalization is reflected in the evolving ownership of Las Vegas resorts.

Dubai World recently made a huge investment in MGM Mirage. The holding company for the Persian Gulf nation is purchasing a 50 percent interest in the CityCenter project, buying 28,000 shares of company stock and partnering in a large resort development on the southwest corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue (the long-vacant site of the Strip's first resort, the El Rancho Vegas).

MGM Mirage officials say Dubai World's $5 billion-plus investment is a major boon to the company -- and to Las Vegas. This is no doubt true, although the move may generate controversy. After all, it was a Dubai World subsidiary that withdrew from operating U.S. ports after Congress raised security concerns.

Other foreign companies are getting involved in Las Vegas, too. The Elad Group, based in Israel, plans to replace the New Frontier with a large resort inspired by New York's Plaza Hotel. And an Australian firm, Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd., vows to spend $5 billion on Crown Las Vegas, a 1,888-foot skyscraper on the site of the closed Wet 'n Wild water park.

Big money is flowing in the other direction as well. Las Vegas casino operators Sheldon Adelson, Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian have spent billions in Macau -- a one-hour, high-speed ferry ride from Hong Kong -- to tap into the massive Asian gambling market. Harrah's, too, is dipping its toes into Macau's waters.

Adelson, the most aggressive of the bunch, is spending another $4 billion on a casino resort in Singapore. The Venetian owner said recently that he envisions perhaps 10 "mini-Las Vegases" around the world. Besides Macau, he thinks Strip-style developments could be built in Europe, the Middle East, South America, Russia, Turkey and India.

What's happening, it seems to me, is that the historic linkage between the Las Vegas resort industry and the urban area bearing the same name is breaking down. Casino operators once took refuge in Nevada because nobody else would have them. Today, they are multinational corporate titans, revered on Wall Street and courted by foreign governments. This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. But it's happening.

Las Vegas resort bosses are flying on corporate jets to exotic lands more than they are checking on the welfare of guests at local resorts. It's not like the good old/bad old days, when casino operators were on a first-name basis with regular customers and ate lunch in the casino's coffee shop. God knows what Benny Binion would think of all this.

The good news is that Las Vegas is in charge of this global gambling explosion. The world is looking to Las Vegas for leadership and expertise, and we are eagerly providing it.

The more uncertain news is that the Las Vegas where regular folks live is disconnecting from this hospitality bullet train. Our diversifying economy means that beyond the Strip, we are becoming more like the rest of America, and therefore more in sync with national economic trends. That might be a good thing in some ways, but it's not nearly as interesting as the alternative.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.

 

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