Casino critics spin their wheels

Feb 12, 2002 5:43 AM

Commentary By KEN WARD

Here we go again. A new report is calling ”” once more ”” for Southern Nevada to diversify. Economists, academics and the Nevada Development Authority have concluded that more high-tech companies and other businesses are needed to augment the gaming industry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everyone can’t work at casinos, after all.

Yet the latest study seems disconnected from reality when it suggests that Nevada’s No. 1 industry is somehow holding Las Vegas down. That premise is a slap in the face of the nearly 200,000 Southern Nevadans employed in Hotel, Gaming and Recreation (HGR). It’s a premise that’s also fatally flawed. Inexplicably, only one casino operator ”” Harrah’s ”” was listed among the scores of local companies interviewed by the researchers.

As one gamer said of the report: “It’s a lot of blue sky and green grass. But we live here in the Mojave Desert.’’ In other words: Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

The 50-page report gets some things right. For example, it notes, “Growth is expected to accelerate in the electronics sector as the gaming industry employs more technology.’’ Key players mentioned include IGT, Shuffle Master, Âí­Bally’s, Aristocrat, Mikohn, Trimm, Sigma Gaming, Âí­Anchor Gaming, Acres Gaming, Casino Data Systems.

“Of particular importance in this sector are electrical engineers and electronic technicians,’’ the study adds, duly listing the higher-education requirements for such work.

But while Las Vegas hosts a large concentration of software and manufacturing for the gaming industry, we’re no Silicon Valley. Nor do we have the quality schools to become such. A miniscule one-tenth of 1 percent of the local workforce is classified as high-tech. What’s more, the technology that goes into gaming devices is generally considered to be about a decade behind the times.

Again, there’s nothing inherently bad about that. But rather than try to remake our city into someplace we’re not, let’s play to our strength. Which is being the greatest resort destination on the face of the globe.

Even from the tallest Ivory Tower perch, it’s hard to see how ”” or why ”” Las Vegas should cast itself in the mold etched by the “Comprehensive Labor Report.” While laudable, it’s almost laughable to imagine Clark County as an Âí­employment hotbed for three of the “clusters” identified: health care, information technology and administrative/Âí­marketing support. The remaining two, Hollywood-style Âí­entertainment and the aforementioned electronics, are only slightly more plausible, but marginal nonetheless.

What makes the post-gaming scenario so far-fetched? The report, ironically, provides the answers. Pointing out that the vast majority of immigrants to Las Vegas lack post-secondary education (or even high school diplomas), the study correctly describes this valley as a blue-collar enclave. White collars need not apply. And if they do come, their career paths for advancement are short or non-existent. 

In fact, as the report states, the most fertile field for upscale professionals is in government, whose expansion has far outstripped the area’s robust population growth over the past 20 years. Of course, government doesn’t create wealth; it merely moves it around. Well, at least the report didn’t call for a tax increase.

Meantime, the gaming industry ”” employing a steady 22 percent of the local workforce ”” continues to generate jobs and wealth. Thanks to the bustling casino trade, Las Vegas is one of the few places where cocktail waitresses can own their own homes. That may not impress pipe-puffing Ph.Ds, but it’s an honest living and it’s part of an industry that attracts more than 30 million free-spending visitors here every year.

The fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks focused much attention on the local economy. And as long as Las Vegas offers world-class gaming and leisure opportunities, we will remain susceptible to the whims of jittery travelers. “We’re one event away from disaster,’’ as one gamer puts it.

But that’s the hand we’ve dealt ourselves out here in this remote Southwest island. And judging by the glittering palaces that line the Las Vegas Strip, the gaming industry is playing it pretty well. So instead of dreaming about a straight flush, let’s concentrate on keeping the full house we already have.

Ken Ward is a senior writer for GamingToday and author of the new book, “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas,” available at {} and {}