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Economy

Las Vegas’ downturn could have a surprising upside

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Could the recession be the best thing to happen to Las Vegas?
Photo: Richard Brian

Last month, after moderating a political debate for a local business group, I stayed to talk with some attendees. One chat stuck with me, an encounter with a laid-off mid-level casino corporation executive whose partner had just also lost his job as a manager of an electronics store that closed.

“Between the two of us, we have four advanced degrees and we’re collecting unemployment,” he groused.

“So why don’t you move somewhere else?” I asked him.

“Oh, we can’t,” he said sadly. “We’re so underwater on our house and the house I had before we moved in together. We’re going to have to tough this out somehow.”

This conversation had a profound, unexpected effect on me: It made me realize the prolonged, brutal recession is both the worst thing that’s ever happened to Southern Nevada and, also, potentially the best thing that’s ever happened to Las Vegas as a community.

Hear me out, please. I’m not in favor of anyone going broke or losing their jobs. Really, I’m not.

But for decades now journalists and leaders have pondered why Vegas suffers from such crappy community spirit. People don’t know their neighbors, they don’t vote or participate in civic activities in significant numbers and they join churches and synagogues at lower rates than in other parts of the United States. Even those of us who profess to love the quirks of this unique nook of Americana lust in our hearts for other places, places with more culture or more prestige or more temperate summers. If the perfect job opportunity arose, we would—and so many have—say buh-bye and chalk up the Vegas era of our lives as an intriguing epoch our grandkids will never believe.

It is this real and virtual transience that has prevented Las Vegas from being anything more than a place for opportunists to come, take what they want from this ecologically ridiculous construct and move on. Why would we care about forcing our legislators to fix our schools or roads or tax structure or environment if we have no intention of spending our lives here?

That is what makes this economic downturn so unique. In the past, when times got tough the best and brightest among us, those who easily could do so, would just bail. We were only here because the pasture was so unbelievably green, so if the grass became ever-so-less-lush, it was never a big deal to find someplace else to graze.

The most important difference between this downturn and past ones is that our real estate is now worthless, and that has trapped many of us here for the duration. We can short-sell and foreclose, and certainly we’re doing both in record numbers, but a huge number of us are resigned to the notion that we can’t leave because we’ve got mortgage obligations.

As a result, the city gets to keep that couple with the four degrees and the thousands of other educated professionals who don’t want ruined credit as a souvenir of their Vegas sojourns. And boy, do we ever need each and every one of them, don’t we? Out of nothing more than self-preservation, those people will come up with something—maybe the next Zappos or something equally huge?—to get us out of this jam.

More important, though, is the part that will come: recovery. And, yes, there will be one someday. When that time does come, when things do begin to hum again, those of us who stuck it out will enjoy a profound sense of ownership and accomplishment that we’ve never felt before. We stuck together in the darkest of storms; are we going to all disperse when the sun shines again?

What makes a community is a shared experience in overcoming adversity. Did Chicagoans leave after the fire? Did San Franciscans flee after the earthquake? Did Londoners scatter after the blitz? No. They rebuilt out of necessity and, as a result, survival was in the DNA of the subsequent generations in those great cities.

Up until this, life in Vegas was always so easy. We never appreciated our successes, never had to. We will now. And from that, a community will mature.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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