Las Vegas City Manager Betsy Fretwell says Las Vegas has the potential to be a “sleeper city,” that is, one that surprises the rest of the country and the world with its innovation and industry.
The good news is, she may be right. But the bad news is, she may be right because the rest of the nation has such low expectations of our city.
When it comes to gambling, we’ve got surprise and delight down. If there’s a new way to separate people from their money by proposing a mathematically improbable wager, it probably originated here.
But when it comes to higher and lower education, manufacturing, medicine, high technology (unrelated to the gambling trade), transportation or the like, one does not think immediately of Las Vegas as a leader.
That may be one reason why the city isn’t used as an example in the new book “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.” Co-author Bruce Katz nonetheless came to town Monday to speak to a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting at The Four Seasons, and he seemed confident that Las Vegas could join the list of “metros,” leading what he describes as a new revolution in politics, economics and social change.
According to Katz, the old model of civics — with the federal government perched atop the pyramid, states in the middle and local governments at the base — has outlived its usefulness. Now, cities and metropolitan areas are taking the lead and doing things very differently.
“Cities and metropolitan areas are the engines of economic prosperity and social transformation in the United States,” Katz declares flatly in his book. “There is, in essence, no American (or Chinese or German or Brazilian) economy; rather, a national economy is a patchwork of metropolitan economies.”
And Katz — a vice president of the Brookings Institution, which opened its only non-Washington, D.C., outpost here in conjunction with UNLV — says these new “metros” need to push for as much freedom from federal and even state control as they can.
“The tectonic plates of power and responsibility are shifting,” Katz writes. “Across the nation, cities and metros are taking control of their own destinies, becoming deliberate about their economic growth. Power is devolving to the places and people who are closest to the ground and oriented toward collaborative action.”
Having just returned from yet another legislative session that featured too-little progress, emancipation from Carson City has a certain intoxicating appeal. And that appeal only grows after listening to Brookings’ man in Las Vegas, Robert Lang. He delights in pointing out how Southern Nevada suffers by not getting its fair share of tax loot from either Washington, D.C., or Carson City.
Why shouldn’t Southern Nevada partner with Southern California to create better medical institutions, Lang asks. Why shouldn’t Clark County be in charge of the College of Southern Nevada, the better to pair it with industry to produce graduates trained to do the jobs the community wants to attract? Why should local officials have to ask for the Legislature’s permission to do even basic things?
And aren’t we seeing examples of budding metro revolution in places such as downtown Las Vegas, where Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is investing capital to build a new urban center, and at the impressive Switch data center? (Disclosure: My wife works for a public relations company that represents downtown.)
These are all excellent questions that go to the heart of Katz’s revolution metaphor. “So now you have to learn new civics,” he said at Monday’s gathering. And part of that is demanding more autonomy from a state Legislature that’s been historically ungenerous about giving it.
But if Katz is right, and local metro areas with their business leaders, philanthropic community, universities and local governments really can innovate better, we ought to consider giving them a shot. If Fretwell is right, the gamble will be worth it.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.