UNLV to host final presidential debate before ’16 election

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas will host the final presidential debate before next year’s election, boosting the city’s growing influence in a race that already has brought a long succession of candidates to Southern Nevada.

The school was notified by the Commission on Presidential Debates early Wednesday that its request to be one of four sites for a presidential debate and a vice-presidential debate was accepted. UNLV had partnered with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in March to make the bid.

The debate is scheduled for Oct. 19, 2016, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Convention and Visitors Authority views Las Vegas’ selection as a debate site as validation that the city isn’t just about gambling, nightclubs and having fun, but it’s also a viable location to conduct business.

The university got final approval for the event after a 20-minute meeting of the LVCVA board of directors, which voted unanimously to make $4 million available to cover expenses for the event. LVCVA officials expect to draw 3,500 journalists and 800 delegates, generating as much as $50 million in publicity for UNLV and Las Vegas.

Under terms of the financial agreement, the host city must pay a $1.95 million host fee and $2.05 million for program and production costs.

UNLV President Len Jessup, who will will co-chair a committee to organize the event along with LVCVA President Rossi Ralenkotter, said in a statement that the event will “allow students to experience the political process first-hand.”

Nevada is expected to be a swing state in next year’s election and it will play a key role during the 2016 election as the first Western state in the nomination process.

Las Vegas is already hosting debates for Democratic and Republican candidates later this year. The first of six presidential primary debates for Democratic candidates is scheduled Oct. 13 at Wynn Las Vegas. Front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are expected to participate in the event sponsored by CNN.

Sixteen local leaders served on the committee that made the bid, including Sheriff Joe Lombardo, Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kristin McMillan, Regent Kevin Page, Clark County Department of Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis and executives from MGM Resorts International, The Venetian and Wynn Las Vegas.

Committee member Billy Vassiliadis, CEO and principal of R&R Partners, the LVCVA’s contracted advertising agency, and a leading adviser to local, state and federal political candidates, said the city’s selection as a debate site proves that the city can co-exist as a resort destination and a business development center.

“It’s a heck of a validator in terms of the evolution of Las Vegas,” Vassiliadis said in a telephone interview.

Vassiliadis credited Jessup for injecting energy into the process and leading the community in its effort to put Las Vegas on the debate stage. He also applauded Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for his role in moving the Nevada caucus to an earlier date on the political calendar to make the state relevant early in the primary process.

“I think it shows recognition that Nevada is a state with great political diversity and it’s a natural place for a debate,” he said. “We’ve already had more than our share of presidential hopefuls and most of the leading candidates here, so they know Nevada’s importance.”

Vassiliadis said he expects having the debate so close to the election — less than three weeks before Election Day — should spur voter turnout in the state.

Another political adviser and committee member, Sig Rogich, said the selection “adds one more layer of credibility to all the things we offer.”

“For a city that spends hundreds of millions of dollars to market itself, you can’t buy this kind of publicity,” Rogich said of the benefit of having Las Vegas as the dateline for hundreds of political stories that will be written about the debate.

Rogich said the debate should strengthen UNLV’s reputation as well as that of Las Vegas. He said he wasn’t sure whether Las Vegas would win the bid.

“There’s always a little tension because there’s so much competition out there,” he said. “We’ve already established ourselves as the top destination in North America for tourists and for conventions so this is another way we can be the perfect venue. And being a key battleground state for the election doesn’t hurt.”

The gaming industry also sees the debate as an opportunity for the world to become better educated about the gaming industry.

“UNLV offers the ideal setting for educating presidential candidates about today’s modern casino gaming industry,” Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association said in a statement issued after the announcement.

“The university serves as a training grounds for a diverse range of careers we provide not just in Nevada, but in 40 states across the country,” Freeman said. “We’re confident that many of the students candidates encounter on campus next fall will offer proof of casino gaming providing a path to the middle class for people of all backgrounds and experiences.”

The city made an unsuccessful bid to host the Republican National Convention in 2016, but it is expected to hold a Republican primary debate in December, according to the Nevada Republican Party. The party ultimately decided to conduct the convention — at which its presidential candidate will be nominated — in Cleveland.

The 14-member convention authority board is comprised of eight elected officials from Southern Nevada municipalities and Clark County and six business executives, five of them from the resort industry.

Review-Journal writer Ana Ley contributed to this report. Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Find @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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