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McCarran concession contracts

The corruption-stained Clark County Commission demonstrated how far it has come — and how far it still has to go — in restoring its reputation when it voted Tuesday to open a lucrative airport concession to competition.

A decade ago, commissioners were swamped in controversy and ethics investigations for awarding McCarran International Airport concession contracts to personal friends and political allies. Selling food and merchandise to trapped tourists is as close to a sure thing in business as there is, and a sufficient amount of juice with the valley’s most powerful board was, for a time, a precondition for such a privilege in Las Vegas.

The Hudson Group, based in East Rutherford, N.J., runs the Hudson News shops at 70 airports. The leases on its 18 stores at McCarran are up in 2010, and the company desperately wants to keep them. So its allies on the County Commission sought to open exclusive negotiations with the company to extend the leases until 2019.

How badly does The Hudson Group want to stay at McCarran? It offered to up its rent from 18 percent to 20 percent of revenues, and it promised the politically powerful Culinary union that it wouldn’t discourage its workers from joining the Local 226. That decision alone could add more than $1 million in annual overhead costs to the McCarran shops in the form of fully subsidized health care and a pension plan for workers.

All of which begged a question: If The Hudson Group would give up that much to keep its shops for another 10 years, how much would other concession operators pay for the chance to do business at McCarran?

Commissioners got a hint when former Nevada Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan lobbied the board on behalf of Atlanta-based The Paradies Shops, which operates more than 450 stores in 70 airports across North America.

“We are a quality company. All we seek is an opportunity,” Mr. Bryan told the commission. “The news and gift concession is the crown jewel of all your concessions.”

Representatives from other companies expressed their desire to bid on the concessions, as well.

In the end, the commission voted 3-3 to enter extension negotiations with The Hudson Group, killing the proposal. (Commissioner Rory Reid abstained.)

That’s a positive development for a board accustomed to dealing with pinched noses and greased palms while conducting the public’s business. Outgoing Commissioners Chip Maxfield and Bruce Woodbury, along with Commissioner Tom Collins, supported opening the news and gift concession to other bidders.

However, the vote should have been unanimous. Who were Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani, Lawrence Weekly and Susan Brager looking out for when they voted to protect The Hudson Group from competition?

And why did Clark County Director of Aviation Randall Walker, whose office and operations depend heavily on maximizing concession revenues, argue on behalf of keeping the process closed?

If The Hudson Group presents the best proposal, so be it. But let them compete. It shouldn’t take a tie vote for the Clark County Commission to do the right thing.

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