New Businesses Lead Las Vegas Recovery

In part two of our series on the Las Vegas economy, we focus on businesses that may redefine and diversify the area's economy and help it emerge from the harsh recession. Tourism and gambling remain the city's lifeblood, but new industries, including alternative energy and health care, are bringing new revenue to Las Vegas.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes.

Unidentified Man #2: All right.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, there you go.

HANSEN: The blackjack tables were hopping and the slots were ringing in the casinos I visited in Las Vegas earlier this month, evidence that gambling and tourism continue to be the lifeblood of the local economy. But the nation is still digging its way out of the great recession, so Americans have fewer discretionary dollars to spend in Sin City.

And with many casino and hotel construction projects on hold or abandoned, the area is suffering from the highest unemployment and housing foreclosure rates in the country.

Mr. OSCAR GOODMAN (Mayor, Las Vegas, Nevada): Gaming has really given us a quality of life second to none. But that's another time, another day.

HANSEN: Last week, we heard from Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, a longtime proponent of diversifying the local economy. That's what state and business leaders would like to see. They say economic growth lies in areas like transportation, technology, health care, and one of Nevada's abundant natural resources: intense desert sunlight.

(Soundbite of splashing)

HANSEN: I'm standing by the pool at the luxurious Vdara Hotel condo. It's a gracefully curvaceous all-glass skyscraper, but it's created some problems in the pool area, which is why I'm wearing my sunglasses now. The concave mirrorlike surface focuses the sun's rays down here, and there've been reports of melting plastic, hot metal chairs and some wicked sunburns.

The company's been working to create some more shade here on the deck. Physicists call it solar convergence, and while it's been an inconvenience in this setting, the phenomenon is helping spur a new growth industry in the Las Vegas area.

(Soundbite of motors whirring)

HANSEN: About a half hour drive from the Vdara Hotel is a 400-acre field of more than 200,000 parabolic mirrors near Boulder City, Nevada. Motors whirr as they track the sun and focus its rays to generate electricity. This is Nevada Solar One, a plant operated by Acciona Solar Power. Elizabeth Zbylut is the marketing and communications coordinator.

Ms. ELIZABETH ZBYLUT (Marketing and Communications Coordinator, Acciona Solar Power): We're standing under one of our solar collecting assemblies, which is about 16 feet high. We use these large parabolically shaped mirrors to concentrate the sun onto one main focal point, and that focal point is a tube that's filled with what we call a heat transfer fluid. And using the sun's rays, we heat that heat transfer fluid up to about 735 degrees Fahrenheit. And that hot oil is then sent to our power block where it mixes with water to create steam, and spin a conventional turbine which creates electricity.

(Soundbite of motors whirring)

HANSEN: Nevada Solar One generates 64 megawatts a year, enough to power about 14,000 homes. The mirrors in the massive solar array are not made in Nevada and this presents a problem. As the Las Vegas region tries to establish itself as a leader in areas such as alternative energy, the local workforce will need to be retrained.

Michael Skaggs is executive director of the Nevada Economic Development Commission. The state-funded organization is spending $5,000 dollars per worker to train them to manufacture solar cells for a California company. It will open a plant in Las Vegas this spring. Skaggs also says there are a lot of laid-off construction workers in the Vegas area who need training.

Mr. MICHAEL SKAGGS (Executive Director, Nevada Economic Development Commission): Those folks don't have the skills to, say, participate in a manufacturing economy. So, we're dedicating tremendous state and federal resources to making sure that we retrain the Nevada workforce for opportunities in such things as the biosciences, manufacturing or renewable energy.

And for companies, that's a real boon because they get a promise from us that we're going to train people to their level of expectation or they don't have to hire them. But it's the best investment a state can make because you're investing in your own citizens.

HANSEN: Las Vegas also wants to attract the best and brightest in health care. The University of Nevada Las Vegas has a biotechnology center that hopes to develop business partnerships. And the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health opened last year in a striking new complex designed by the architect Frank Gehry.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HANSEN: This is one of the laboratories in another huge medical complex in the Las Vegas area. The Nevada Cancer Institute opened in 2005. Its address is an optimistic One Breakthrough Way. The nonprofit institute treats cancer patients and conducts research and clinical trials.

One of its founders is board member Heather Murren. She and her husband Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts, had a very personal interest in establishing the institute.

Ms. HEATHER MURREN (Founder, Board Member, The Nevada Cancer Institute): Both sides of our family had had many members with cancer and who had been treated in places like Johns Hopkins or Yale. And what was notable to us was when we moved here, people would often say, where did you go when you got sick? And the answer was McCarran Airport. So, you would leave town often to find something that perhaps was not available here.

HANSEN: Does the institute hope to attract patients from out of state?

Ms. MURREN: Well, that has been one of the most interesting parts of the creation and ultimate success of the Nevada Cancer Institute was that originally it was an idea for people that lived here. But the idea was also that if we could be excellent enough, Las Vegas really could become a center for people to come to for medical care. Because of terrifically good transportation infrastructure, places to stay, we're very good at accommodating people travelling from other places.

And so if we could create a magnet here, it would be good in many ways for, I think, the reputation and the diversity of the economy here in Las Vegas.

HANSEN: The Nevada Cancer Institute accepts insurance and Medicare, but at this point, only about six percent of patients treated there are from out of state. Officials hope those numbers will grow. Patients who arrive at the complex are surrounded by creature comforts - a calming wall of water trickles down a sculpture in the lobby; there's a quiet meditation room and views of the mountains.

Ms. MURREN: When you go into our cancer treatment facility here you'll find that there are a lot of things that actually feel much like a spa or a hotel. Even the service levels that we provide to people - our nurses, the people that greet you at the door - those are people that have been trained, in part, by people in the hotel industry. So, there's a thread that connects us to the hotel industry here. And, yes, it's nice if you're going to be treated for a serious illness to not have that dominate the entire conversation of your family life.

And so to be able to come here and have other things to think about, other things that we offer, but at the same time be able to get some of the best care you could get, I think is extraordinarily powerful.

HANSEN: Oh my Lord.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hello.

HANSEN: It's a whole crew.

Ms. MURREN: There's a whole crew in here.

HANSEN: Hi, everybody.

Unidentified Man #3: This is Darlene.

HANSEN: Hi, Darlene.

Ms. DARLENE MIERA: Hello.

HANSEN: We met cancer patient Darlene Miera and her family in an exam room down the hall. She had traveled 120 miles from her home in St. George, Utah to receive treatment from her favorite doctor, Wolfram Samlowski. After more than two decades as an oncologist in Salt Lake City, he joined the Nevada Cancer Institute in 2007.

Ms. MIERA: He's just the frosting on the cake. Everybody loves him. He reminds you of a big old bear, but he's so gentle and loving.

HANSEN: This is your daughter?

Ms. MIERA: This is my daughter.

HANSEN: Why don't you identify yourself?

Ms. KELLY MIERA: My name is Kelly Miera. My experience here at the Cancer Institute has just been second to none. The Cancer Institute has given us another 17 months with her and a great hope of a cure.

Ms. D. MIERA: When you pull down that little street that's called...

Ms. K. MIERA: Breakthrough Drive.

HANSEN: Breakthrough Drive?

Ms. D. MIERA: Yeah, Breakthrough Drive, you know you're in good hands. And from there you can just relax. It's just a wonderful place to come when you have this disease.

HANSEN: Seventy-two-year-old Darlene Miera suffers from renal cancer and has been participating in a clinical trial at the Nevada Cancer Institute for about seven months now. Her condition has improved, and since our visit we learned that she'll no longer need to come in as often for treatment.

After we visited with her, we spoke with Dr. Oscar B. Goodman, a medical oncologist at the institute.

As a Las Vegas native, and your father's mayor of the town, can you assess what effect this clinic is having on your hometown?

Dr. OSCAR GOODMAN (Oncologist, The Nevada Cancer Institute): It's hard to put into words, but it's extreme excitement, because I believe honestly that one day we are going to contribute vastly to knowledge of this disease and hopefully to its eradication. In terms of all the bad press the city gets, this, I think, over time is going to put all that to bed.

You know, I honestly believe that every day I come in here to work, we're making history. That's going to trickle down to other areas as well. You know, I cite the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute. You know, I think once you get a critical mass of centers of excellence like that, it's going to be like a magnet for everybody else to come in here. This is just the beginning of a dramatic, very positive change here in the city.

(Soundbite of jackhammer)

HANSEN: As Las Vegas tries to diversify its economy through medical tourism and alternative energy, there's also another plan: a new old downtown. The former post office and federal courthouse is being converted into a mob museum, and a new city hall and performing arts center are under construction.

During our stay in Las Vegas, several local residents told us about an independent coffee shop downtown called The Beat, and we decided to drop in.

(Soundbite of dishes)

HANSEN: The building is a comfortable and bohemian place filled with dog-eared books and colorful flyers posted on community bulletin boards. A turntable spins LPs at the bar next to bins full of records. Artists have set up gallery spaces in the back rooms and studios upstairs. There's not a slot machine in sight.

The shop was opened by Jennifer Cornthwaite and her husband Michael in May. I asked Jennifer what changes she had seen in the city since the recession began.

Ms. JENNIFER CORNTHWAITE (Co-Owner, The Beat): Well, interestingly enough, I think that this economy and downturn has actually made downtown a little bit stronger. And I understand that the casino revenue is down down here, but I don't think that people have been hit quite as hard as the Strip. And I think we've had four new businesses open just in this district in the last six months. I honestly think that rents began to drop to a reasonable level -commercial rent - and then people really started thinking about what was really important.

You know, all of those things that we've heard: what's really important; where do I really want to go; where do I really want to spend my dollars, you know, everywhere from a consumer all the way to someone thinking about opening a business. So, I know it's probably a little bit of an unpopular view, but I think that we've had a little bit of a reset and a refocus downtown.

HANSEN: But you didn't feel like you were taking a big risk, you know, opening up a shop here?

Ms. CORNTHWAITE: Oh, of course. Yes, I mean, my parents are terrified. But, you know, we just figured we're all in. The balance between art and commerce is really important to us, so you really want to talk to that guy. Oh yeah.

HANSEN: He apparently wants to talk to us.

Ms. CORNTHWAITE: Brian is - Paco, as most people know him - is a local historian, champion of the art...

HANSEN: Jennifer introduced us to Brian Paco Alvarez. He was having coffee at a nearby table but was drawn in by our conversation. As an urban historian and photo archivist, he's kept a keen eye on the happenings in his hometown.

Mr. BRIAN ALVAREZ: Well, I moved downtown five years ago. I'm a native of Las Vegas and it has been remarkable, the changes. Despite the economic downturn, there's still a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. Our biggest cheerleader is Mayor Oscar Goodman. He built us a new city hall and we've got the Smith Center for the Performing Arts that is under construction, the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, the World Market Center, all these great little businesses up and down Fremont Street.

It's really remarkable. Despite the recession, and especially how hard it's hit Las Vegas, there's all these little sparkles in the desert that are bringing back downtown in a way that was unimaginable 10 years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Sparkling is an apt description for the part of Las Vegas that is in the Strip. Downtown, I think Paco means that new seeds have been planted there. The ground is fertile for revival. The El Cortez, one of Bugsy Siegel's original casinos, got a makeover - it's just across the street from the coffee shop. And Paco told us that some 1,000 people were expected for an arts walk later on the day of our visit.

To live in Las Vegas means to be a bit of a gambler. Here, young people are placing their bets that their town can hit the economic jackpot once again.

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