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Las Vegas Chamber marks 100th with celebration

Las Vegas was the victim of economic devastation, its businesses closing, its residents fleeing town.

Sound familiar?

But the year in question was 1910. The Meadow Valley Wash 100 miles north of the Las Vegas had flooded, wiping out the railroad that was both the city’s lifeline and reason for being. Those who chose not to leave decided to band together.

Las Vegas needed roads, they decided, to bring traffic to the city. The weather was perfect for tourism, they thought, and the time was ripe. A group of 60 business owners formed the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce to champion their interests and lobby for the needs of the city.

This week, the chamber celebrates its centennial.

In 100 years, the chamber has grown from 60 members to 6,000. Very little remains of the old Vegas — buildings have been demolished, businesses shuttered and replaced, people long gone. But the chamber and its mission remain, said Kristin McMillan, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

"The original founding fathers saw a vision coming out of this dusty desert. They envisioned the fact early on that we could be a really important destination for tourism, hospitality and eventually for gaming," McMillan said.

The chamber unites business leaders, promotes networking opportunities and lobbies at the state and federal level for local business interests. Its goals are unchanged.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is the largest business organization in Nevada. The chamber has been influential in several of the state’s milestones, including the building of Hoover Dam, the construction of McCarran International Airport and the transformation of Las Vegas from tiny railroad town to international tourist destination.

Before the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was formed and "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" became the city’s motto, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce took it upon itself to market the city to the outside world.

In 1945, the chamber devoted $75,000 to its Live Wire Fund, which was designed to publicize Las Vegas in the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, the chamber hired the West-Marquis agency to create a tourism-based ad campaign. The result was Vegas Vic, the iconic cowboy now memorialized in neon on Fremont Street.

The chamber was also instrumental in creating the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority, the Better Business Bureau and United Way of Southern Nevada in the 1950s.

Throughout the boom years, the chamber was there to sing its members’ praises.

But the last few years have been tough. The chamber has lost members because of the recession. Last December, chamber leader Matt Crosson died unexpectedly.

McMillan is leading the chamber during one of the most challenging periods Las Vegas businesses have ever faced.

"We are poised to do something very meaningful as a chamber. It’s a very pivotal time for us," she said. "It’s time for us to step up as the primary business organization that has represented this community over the last 100 years."

Part of the chamber’s work involves advocating for business interests on the local, state and national levels. Chamber executives recently traveled with business owners to meet with Nevada’s congressional delegation in Washington . The chamber is lobbying for an interstate highway connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix.

"We think there’s huge potential there for future growth and economic development coming from the Southern United States, Western United States and Mexico. It would create a corridor to place Las Vegas right in the middle," McMillan said.

The chamber also began offering health insurance benefits to its small-business members, and last year launched its Viva Las Business program to encourage members to do business with one another.

This week, the chamber’s business members are going to set their troubles aside for a slate of celebrations that culminate in a gala at the Palms. Attendees will notice the utter lack of speeches and programs.

"We thought after 100 years, we deserved to have some fun," said chamber spokeswoman Cara Roberts. "This is a very poignant time to celebrate what we’ve accomplished."

After celebrating its anniversary, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce will get back to work.

"I can’t tell you what the next 100 years is going to bring," McMillan said, "but I can tell you that we’ll still be going strong."

Contact reporter Caitlin McGarry at cmcgarry@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

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