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What he learned in Flint helped him in Las Vegas

In late September I received an email from a reader named Michael Saltman, who said he enjoyed my references to Flint, Michigan. He was born and raised in a middle-class family there, too.

“It thrived and I thrived,” the 74-year-old Las Vegas developer said.

The Flint he knew was an energized place, he remembered, where money flowed freely. If someone had an idea, say, for a cultural center, it happened.

The man described as a visionary by academics and politicians, and whose apartment, shopping center, grocery store, and technology center developments are all over town, doesn’t forget where he came from.

“It’s sad and painful what has happened to a once beautiful city,” he said as we sat outside the UNLV Boyd School of Law, where he and his wife Sonja co-founded the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution in 2003. “I had a terrific boyhood because of Flint, which gave me a great manhood.”

Like me, Saltman didn’t experience the Flint of the Rust Belt, when the number of General Motors employees fell from 80,000 in the ‘60s to 8,000 by 2000 as automobile manufacturing jobs left the U.S.

And he didn’t know the Flint of today, where people who live there, including my daughter, can’t drink the water or even bathe in it.

What Flint was for Saltman — he learned to be independent — is what he wishes all children could experience.

Unlike parents today who drive their children everywhere because of the threat of crime, he was encouraged to explore the city by bike and bus. “That helped my confidence.”

He walked to Mott Park to play golf. There, he often put on shorts, a mask and a snorkle to dive after golf balls hit into the Flint River.

When Saltman was 14, his father died. He had sold furniture and dreamed of making it big in real estate. Just before his death from a heart attack, Saltman’s father and a friend bought a farm in Swartz Creek — a rural area outside Flint — with the dream of converting it into a housing development known as Winchester Village.

I know that dream became a reality. My parents bought a home there.

While the death of his father was devastating, Saltman said it wasn’t crippling because people came forward to let him know his future could still be bright.

One was Graham Provan, his history teacher at Flint Central High School.

He said Provan — who would invite students to his house on weekends to discuss current events — used the Socratic teaching method, where his probing questions helped Saltman think on his feet.

“He always treated us like we were adults, not kids. He wanted us to think critically, to ask good questions.”

Thinking critically, he said, helped him become a class president in high school, and an honor student at both Michigan State University and at Detroit’s Wayne State University Law School. He said it also helped him turn a post law school scholarship at a European university into a successful overseas business experience in life insurance and investments.

When a friend told him the Las Vegas of the ‘70s offered real estate opportunities, he jumped in with both feet.

His VISTA Group developed dozens of projects, including the Village and Renaissance Villas Apartments, Campus Village Shopping Center, the Meridian Apartments and the three big Renaissance Shopping Centers. VISTA also helped plan the Las Vegas Technology Center, developed Keil Ranch Business Park, and brought the Food 4 Less market chain to las Vegas.

He’s a longtime trustee on the UNLV Foundation Board and also serves on the Lied Institute Board and on University Medical Center’s governing board.

Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani, along with UNLV President Len Jessup, call Saltman a visionary and hope his dream for Midtown UNLV, which would make the Maryland Parkway area a walkable area of shops and eateries, comes true.

Saltman’s made millions and given away millions.

Dick Morgan, founding dean of UNLV’s law school, said the money Saltman invested in the conflict resolution center, along with his visionary ideas, helped make the center internationally recognized.

“Flint shaped my life,” Saltman said. “Growing up in Flint helped me dream big.”

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter

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