Silver linings amid the gloom

May “you live in interesting times.” Many assume this saying is an ancient Chinese curse, or blessing, depending on how you look at it.

Authorities actually can’t confirm that the phrase is ancient or Chinese, but it definitely sounds like something Confucius would have said.

Regardless of its origins, the phrase certainly applies to Las Vegas in 2009.

Consider the daily news:

* The casino industry is faltering. Just two years ago, who could have seriously imagined that the behemoths of the Strip would be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or that the massive CityCenter project would be at risk of becoming a white elephant?

* Developers and home builders are fighting for their lives, with literally nothing to do in the wake of the real estate crash. Jim Rhodes’ bankruptcy filing this week punctuates the end of a wild and lucrative ride for local developers.

* The wave of home foreclosures has hit Las Vegas hard, leaving thousands of houses vacant, many of them trashed by those who could no longer afford to pay the mortgage.

* The state budget is in shambles, victim of declining tax revenues and a governor and legislative body seemingly incapable of rising to the vital task before them.

* With state funding likely to be cut drastically, the once-flowering state universities face a bare-bones future and perennial cellar-dwelling reputation.

* The decades-long drama over the plan to dump high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is coming to a close. Nevada appears likely to win the war at last, although good jobs are being lost in the process and the country will be no closer to a viable solution for its ever-growing stockpiles of radioactive waste.

So, yes, we live in interesting times. It sounds mostly like a curse, but if you look carefully, a few things are happening here that shine through the gloom:

* Nevada is positioned naturally and politically to become a big player in the green revolution. The state’s bountiful renewable resources — sun, wind, geothermal — and wide-open spaces make it ideal for energy projects. If we play our cards right, this could mean a stable new industry for a state painfully dependent on the boom-and-bust cycles of tourism and mining.

* The dramatic slowdown in home building means more residents are staying in their homes for longer periods. This, in theory, should result in more stable neighborhoods and a greater sense of community throughout Las Vegas.

* Construction will start soon on the Smith Performing Arts Center in downtown Las Vegas. This long-planned facility is destined to become a key engine for cultural growth and maturation in Las Vegas.

* President Obama’s stimulus package includes $8 billion in funding for high-speed rail projects. A leading contender for a portion of those funds is a train linking Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. First envisioned around 1980, the train would boost the tourism industry and reinvent Las Vegas’ relationship with Southern California.

* The epic ineptitude of Gov. Jim Gibbons practically guarantees that we will have a new governor in 2010. Democrat or Republican, whoever it is will almost certainly represent a huge step forward from the strange person who occupies the governor’s mansion today.

* Not all the news out of the casino industry is scary. Consider that the new M Resort in Henderson is packing ’em in, at least for now. And the big renovation of the Hard Rock includes the reopening of a new and improved Joint concert hall, where the world’s greatest pop and rock acts will come to play.

* Against all odds, the Reading Room bookstore at Mandalay Bay is still open. More than a year ago, Mandalay officials announced that the little independent bookstore would be closing to make way for some high-end shop that would earn larger dollars for the resort. But then the economy fell apart, and nobody coveted the Reading Room’s modest square footage. So it perseveres — the only independent, general-interest, new bookstore in the Las Vegas Valley.

* People are cutting back on their spending, which has hurt the sit-down restaurants but helped the fast-food chains. This is bad for our waistlines, but if it means Raising Cane’s stays in business, my family will be very happy. We’re addicted to that place’s chicken, fries and secret sauce.

* Last but not least, the volume and vibrancy of the news these days is keeping Las Vegas reporters and columnists very busy. As daily newspapers struggle to stay afloat and adapt to rapidly evolving tastes and technologies, there is some comfort in the fact that somebody’s gotta keep track of all this interesting stuff.

I’m no Pollyanna. This is indeed one of the bleaker periods in Las Vegas history. But looking on the bright side every once in a while never hurt anybody.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Check out his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/schumacher.

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