Some years ago, I listened to Terry Gross interview a successful Las Vegas businessman on National Public Radio.
Terry asked what it was like to be a resident of Vegas, working and living as one would in any American city. Was it strange, difficult or disorienting?
“Well,” the businessman replied “Las Vegas is the best place in the world to start a business, not really work very hard, be successful, and live the good life” — he paused for a moment — “if you have no weaknesses. But if you do, this town will find them, and destroy you.”
His words made quite an impression. So much so that I resolved never to go to Vegas.
I kept that vow until last week, when, in a moment of — you guessed it — weakness, I agreed to accompany a friend on an extended weekend trip to Sin City.
Disembarking from the plane, there were slot machines scarcely 10 steps from the arrival gate. And of course I sat down, put in a twenty, pulled the lever — and won! In less than a minute, I was up $250.
And as I fattened my wallet with my sudden windfall, I knew that I was a winner, that I’d already beaten the odds.
I was right — or I would have been, had I turned right around, gotten back on the plane and gotten out of town.
Instead, we jumped into a cab and headed for the strip.
There, I was soon to learn that the city’s motto, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!” ought to be replaced with “The money you bring to Vegas, stays in Vegas!”
We drank, we gambled, we went to shows, we ate, we slept in snatches and left considerably poorer. And, in common with most folks who visit Vegas, we had a good time.
But what I found most interesting about the city was not the sheer, over-the-top spectacle that the phrase “Vegas, baby!” evokes, but the organizing principle, or lack thereof, that created the modern Las Vegas.
Consider Colorado Springs.
Ours was a city founded and controlled for many years by a single strong-willed individual, Gen. William Palmer. His vision of a genteel, wealthy community, a Newport of the West, was overwhelmed within a couple of decades by the raffish entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the rough and tumble mining camp called Cripple Creek.
Today’s chaotic, lively city owes little to Palmer. It’s the creation of hundreds of thousands of individuals, most striving to get ahead, make a decent living, educate their children and enjoy life. No single organizing principle animates our city; no shared vision of the future directs us.
Yet Las Vegas, a monument to unfettered, unregulated and unashamed capitalism, is a city that appears to be the result of intelligent design, not of the random interactions of residents through the decades.
Consider the strip.
Literally billions of dollars have been invested in hotels, casinos and attractions that, although nominally competitors, actually operate as a single symbiotic organism. Like patrons at an amusement park or a mall, visitors go to Vegas — not to any specific hotel or casino.
And although the strip has plenty of events to offer, from the Bellagio’s spectacular (and free) fountains to overpriced strip shows, the real show is the city itself.
Clearly, businesses have seen the advantages of cooperation, as a way of ensuring that everyone is successful in a hyper-competitive environment.
Remember a few years back, when the growth of gaming seemed to many to foreshadow the decline of Las Vegas? Why would anybody go to Vegas, when you could patronize your friendly neighborhood casino?
Why? Because Vegas, which, in its dark permissiveness had always differed from every other city in the United States, remade itself to be like nothing else in the world.
The creators of MGM Grand, of the Bellagio, of New York/New York, of Mandalay Bay, of the Luxor, and a dozen others understood that soaring, concentrated excess would bring people and money.
The very factors that should have inhibited the growth of Vegas, the spread of gaming to other locations, actually fueled its growth. Gambling was no longer exotic and dangerous — it was fun and unthreatening, and you might even win.
Didn’t Uncle Vern just win $5,000 up in Cripple Creek?
So perhaps Las Vegas is the only truly modern city in America. It’s ostensibly an outpost of buccaneer capitalism, where regulators fear to tread and laws are for the little people. But the reality may be very different.
Las Vegas is not so much governed as managed. The managers are the CEOs and owners of a dozen companies who build, run and own the city’s landmarks. They determine the city’s look and feel, how it will grow and what it will become. They compete, they cooperate, and their shared vision creates the future of an entire city.
Las Vegas — not New York, not London, not Paris — is the new model for the great cities of Asia and the Middle East that have risen during the last two decades.
Look at Dubai, at Shanghai, at Macao, at Beijing — they’re festival cities, tightly organized and managed, designed not for their residents to live in but to attract and deploy capital.
So for the United States and the West, Las Vegas serves the same function that the railroads served during the 19th century and Detroit’s auto manufacturers served during the 20th.
Vegas is not just a place — it’s a vast economic generator, bringing money, jobs and investment to an entire region.
Sixty years ago, GM’s then CEO, “Engine Charlie” Wilson famously told a congressional committee “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.”
Today, billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, whose Tracinda Group controls half a dozen prime Vegas properties, might slightly alter the phrase and say, with equal accuracy “what’s good for Las Vegas is good for the world.”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.cor or 227-5861.