Put room tax growth to work

Gov. Jim Gibbons took a step in the right direction by recently announcing that he wants to reallocate future growth of the room tax to help meet the 21st century needs of our tourism industry.

The room tax was created more than 50 years ago in order to pool together enough money to mount a modest advertising campaign and attract convention attendees to fledgling casinos on a dusty Nevada highway. Today, Las Vegas is easily among the top tourist and convention destinations in the world.

The entity which started as the Clark County Fair and Recreation Board, and eventually became the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, now has the largest convention bureau annual budget in America at $266 million -- a figure nobody could have envisioned 50 years ago. In fact, its budget is larger than the combined budgets of the next 10 largest convention bureaus.

Tourism is the undisputed backbone of our state's economy. However, there is no greater threat to the continued success of the tourism industry and its ability to produce growing tax revenue than our reluctance to address our current tourism infrastructure needs.

No place in Nevada is this more true than in Las Vegas. The fact of the matter is that no convention and visitor's authority on the planet -- or any amount of advertising, marketing, and public relations -- could ever make up for our inability to physically get people to and from Las Vegas and move them around in an efficient manner.

Thanks to many smart and sophisticated business people, a strong and reliable work force, and billions and billions of dollars of investment, Las Vegas has become a destination with a name brand so powerful that it is the envy of tourist locations across the world.

It is shameful to think that anyone would be selfish enough to risk the continued success of Las Vegas by not supporting logical steps to address critical tourist infrastructure needs.

The failure to confront this issue now can have long-lasting consequences on the future of Las Vegas. It is not unrealistic to imagine a scenario in which we become so frustrated with clogged streets, long lines at the airport and stopped traffic on the highways, that we as a community become opposed to any additional growth out of fear that our traffic problems will further escalate.

Imagine the ripple effect of a scenario in which the public is so strongly opposed to any additional growth that elected officials are helpless to act. Development opportunities are turned away, and along with them the jobs, economic benefit and tax revenue they provide. The lack of revenue creates a larger hole in the government's coffers and funding for areas such as education and health care are further at risk. That is followed by increased pressure to raise taxes on all of us, further suppressing the growth needed to produce additional revenues. The result is a descending economic spiral.

The hotels, resorts and casinos that make up this spectacular destination exist for the sole purpose of bringing people to Las Vegas and encouraging them to spend money. With hotel room rates and occupancy levels at all-time highs and more fantastic mega-resorts on the way, it is beyond time for the hotel room tax to support the most important issues facing our region -- and clearly our transportation needs are at the forefront of that debate.

Public opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of Nevada residents support diverting some of the hotel room tax to pay for tourism infrastructure improvements. In addition, 40,000 new rooms will be added in Las Vegas by 2012, and the room tax is expected to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue. We should now use this opportunity to fundamentally re-evaluate the role of the room tax and expand the definition of tourism support to include the physical infrastructure needed to ensure its continued growth.

In addition to roadways, tourist infrastructure should include major entertainment and sports venues needed to serve the community and attract even more tourists. In the near term, with overwhelming public backing and a clear need to address our growing transportation issues, it is time to act. Our future livelihood might depend on it.

William P. Weidner is president of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns The Venetian.