Tuesday, September 11, 2012

City Tour to Vegas

Every year a group from Park City heads to another town for an information gathering visit.  The idea is that every town has things they are doing right and wrong, and some of the "rights" are things we haven't done yet in Park City.  The goal is to steal the best ideas and duplicate them. Over the years, there have been some very significant impacts on our town.

Because of this, the trips tend to be to cities that have a lot in common with Park City.  The easiest destinations are the other ski towns, but other resort destinations work as well.  This year was a bit odd:  Downtown Las Vegas.  They picked Vegas because of the massive efforts they are undergoing to revitalize downtown and to find new business beyond their core of gambling.
When most of us think Vegas, we think of the Strip.  Bad guess though.  The entire Strip is in unincorporated Clark County. Of course this makes a huge difference in where tax dollars go and improvements are being done.

The city of Las Vegas encompasses the older downtown area.  There are a few casinos but they don't look at all like the massive Disney-esque ones on the Strip.  Walk a few blocks from the casinos and you are in a land of homeless people, pawn shops and bail bondsmen.

This is a fairly typical crowd outside these casinos.  Notice:
  • The heavy guy in the "Ass Man" t-shirt.
  • His girlfriend with a beer in her hand. Open containers are on par with New Orleans.
  • A complete family dressed as super heros, for no obvious reason.
  • A motorized wheelchair coming into the picture.  I can't tell you how many hundreds of these I saw.
You can't have guests without some nice restaurants in the area.  About two blocks from our casino/hotel (the Golden Nugget) was The Heart Attack Grill.  They pride themselves in making some of the least healthy food on the planet.  If you weigh more than 350 pounds, you can eat for free.
To draw people into area they built a giant roof along Freemont Street and every night they have a mix of live and recorded music with a video display that feels somewhere between a laser show and a MTV video.  It definitely had the effect of drawing a crowd.
I stayed at the Golden Nugget a decade or two ago.  It was a dump.  They have done a nice job of remodeling it.  The rooms were nice and spacious.  The beds were comfortable and the rooms had new flat panel TVs.

In the lobby area, there was a pool with a giant aquarium.  The highlight was going down the water slide, in a tube, and through the aquarium full of sharks.  If you look closely, you can see the tube behind the sharks.
So, I haven't painted a glowing description of the new and vital downtown.  What are they doing?

One example is their new government building.  It is nice, modern, and meets LEED energy standards.  Even better, the shoe/clothing company Zappos bought their old city hall building and is moving a company of 1500 in from the burbs. We got to go visit Zappos and learn more about the company's unique (odd) culture.  If you are interested, the founder has a book called Delivering Happiness, A Path to Profits.

Looking out from the new city hall, you can see the new performing arts center (right) and the humongous furniture mart (left).  As a North Carolinian, I hate the idea that they worked so hard to steal the annual furniture shows from High Point.
With private donations (and big ones!) they managed to build a new 470 million dollar performing arts center in the middle of a recession.  The place was drop dead gorgeous, but I have to think that they could have found better uses for that much money. It's not mine to spend or donate though.
Another addition to downtown is the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. It is run as an extension of the Cleavland Clinic and they are doing trials for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other brain-related diseases.

The building was designed by Frank Gehry, a famous architect who has designed some of the funkiest buildings in the world.
I think staring at this building too long would either give me a headache or make me a research candidate for the building.
From downtown Vegas, we hopped on the bus for a ride to the Hoover Dam. Quite the engineering marvel.  We had a good presentation on the water issues of the Western US, which will be critical for Park City and everything around it.  Water will definitely be the next big resource shortage unless someone comes up with a spectacular improvement in desalination.
After 9/11, they built a new bridge so that they don't have to deal with everyone driving across such an interesting terrorist target.  I have to guess that if the dam burst, life downstream would get very interesting, at least for that brief few seconds.
We broke up our return trip from Vegas with an overnight stop at the Brian Head ski resort in southern Utah.  These guys have some real challenges.  Their small ski area is a long drive from most population centers and it isn't close to any airport of consequence.   Ove the past few years, their full time population has dropped from over 100 to 83.  We are talking about a serious fluctuation between ski season and the shoulder seasons.  Park City has some of the same problem, but not nearly the same magnitude. 
One thing Brian Head has going for it is that it's next door neighbor is the Cedar Breaks National Monument, which offers no place to overnight.

Do you know the difference between a National Park and a National Monument?  The parks are created by an act of Congress but a monument can be created by a declaration from the President.  Other than that, they follow the same rules and regulations.

Cedar Breaks looked amazingly similar to Bryce Canyon, which is about 40 miles away as the crow flies. 
In addition to the hoodoos, the park has some incredibly old trees.  This one is 1800 years old!  I am always amazed at how rugged these trees can be.  This one is growing at over 10,000 feet in altitude, in crappy soil, and where about 400 inches of snow fall every winter.
I saw a lot. Did I actually learn anything useful?  Sure
  • Most important, Park City has a lot of cool, interesting, motivated people and they are excited about doing things to keep the town vital and interesting.  I got to spend a lot of time talking with everyone and I hope I built some long term relationships.
  • Riding a bus anywhere beyond the normal Park City transit routes is further than I care for.  All the way to Vegas is why they invented planes.
  • Revitalizing downtown Vegas is a 20+ year effort.  I hope they can stick with it.
  • Our group had several  builders and they thought Vegas's relaxing building restrictions and speeding up planning approvals were wonderful.  I disagree.  I think Vegas is in a ditch and needs to do extreme things to get out.  I think Park City is in good shape and wants to stay there over the years.  We don't have to make as many tactical sacrfices.
  • Climate change is real and water shortages are going to become worse and worse.  I don't think anyone has even imagined a real solution for the Southwest yet.  Someone needs to remind Vegas that they live in a desert.  Unlimited growth is not a reasonable option.
  • With a little creativity, you can draw a lot of people into a downtown area.  In our short stay, we witnessed a huge parade, a 20,000 person First Friday and a big arts event.
  • We should invite the leaders of Brian Head to Park City.  They could get a lot from how we have solved issues similar to their own.
I'm sure there's more but I'm tired of typing.
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