Editor’s Notebook: Improving The Odds

January 2011 Vol. 238 No. 1

Bugsy Siegel, Donny & Marie, Holly Madison, Willie Nelson….all names that kept cropping into my overworked brain during our trip to Las Vegas.

It was my first time there so I knew I was missing something. Exactly what that was I couldn’t be sure until we spent a few days at the posh Bellagio resort on the Strip next to Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio was built in 1998, has 4,000 rooms, a staff of 10,000 and the world’s largest chocolate ice cream fountain. The Bellagio was recently held up in the wee hours by a helmeted bandit who ran off with $1.5 million (face value) in betting chips from the casino.

These are not the best of times for Sin City. A study by the Brookings Institution and London School of Economics ranks Vegas fifth from the bottom of 150 metropolitan areas worldwide, citing a limited economy heavily dependent on tourism and construction. Based on jobs, job growth and income, the only cities faring worse are Dublin, Dubai, Barcelona, and Thessaloniki.

Most of the country has seen a gradual recovery. Vegas is still waiting. The city’s income levels declined 1.2% despite an increase nationally, and the employment rate fell 3%, much worse than the national decline of 0.7%. The area continues to face record foreclosure rates with the second-highest share of bank-owned homes and more than two-thirds of residential mortgage holders owe more than their homes are worth.

“If the first year of recovery is any indication for Las Vegas, it could be a long, slow road ahead,” said Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director at Brookings.

Workers said the past two years have been devastating. The crowds were moderate in what should have been a busy season and many we spoke to were very worried because their slow season was approaching. While all roads inevitably lead to the enormous casino, we wondered where those crowds were. Very few were playing at the slots. Many of those in the casino were lined up trying to get into the buffet because that was the only venue where they could eat cheaply.

Across the street, Holly Madison headlined a burlesque show at Planet Hollywood. Holly was one of the “Girls Next Door.” So this is what happens when Hef is through with you. Donny & Marie and Barry Manilow were headliners elsewhere. We saw Cirque du Soleil (one of their four shows in town) at $175 a ticket.

Seeing the Strip lit up at night wasn’t quite the thrill I expected; nor is the prospect of living in an arid region where we really don’t belong. I wondered why they don’t have a monument or street named for Bugsy Siegel, who literally founded Vegas in the ’40s and was assassinated by his mob buddies who did not take kindly to cost over-runs.

True, without Vegas we may not have had the Rat Pack, Howard Hughes would have needed a different lair to hide out, and Celine Dion, Cher and Wayne Newton might have to look elsewhere for a gig. But this isn’t about them: this is about the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the tourist crowd for a livelihood. This is not meant to criticize anyone who works for a living, but these are NOT essential jobs. No one needs to go to Vegas. So, when the economy dives, guess what happens next?

“Highly educated people tend to work in industries that haven’t been hit very hard, and if they do become unemployed, they have an easier time finding a new job compared to someone who’s less skilled and educated,” Berube said. Increasing the city’s low rate of college degrees from 22% of adults would be crucial in helping diversify the economy.

Years ago, Willie Nelson sang a tune entitled “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” Why not change that around to “Mammas Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Petroleum Engineers.”

Then maybe we wouldn’t have morons risking lives to make off with useless casino chips!

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