UNLV Now started as a modest plan to build an on-campus football stadium, student housing and shopping center. Over the past two years, however, it’s morphed into a 60,000-seat “mega events center” designed to accommodate both college football and large-scale Strip events, such as concerts. In April, UNLV Now parted ways with would-be partner Majestic Realty, and subsequently lost up to $400 million in funding. Currently, it awaits a vote on Assembly Bill 335, which would create a tax district to partially finance the project. Still, additional funding would be needed, and it’s possible that plans for UNLV Now could change significantly.
First-year Regent Allison Stephens says the project should stay small, and focus first on building the student village, which would include restaurants, drug and convenience stores and some retail. UNLV Now project leader and former hotel college dean Don Snyder says it’s necessary to partner with Strip resorts and build the stadium first to create public and private interest. Here, the two university leaders share their views.
REGENT ALLISON STEPHENS
Why should we build a student village first?
Right now with the mega events center, the project is quite large and will be quite involved. In order to be able to move forward with the UNLV Now project, I think that it would be prudent to begin with the student village. That is something that is more scalable, reasonable, that can be done in a shorter amount of time. Once we’ve established that as a success, I think we may be able to present that to the stakeholders for the mega events center aspect. Instead of just continuing to wait for the mega events center to be done years from now, we could start making progress, improving the lives of our students, faculty and staff now.
Did you get much support for that idea at the regents meeting?
There was not really an opportunity for other regents to chime in at that point, so I’m not sure what the other regents think. I have brought this idea to the attention of those involved with the UNLV Now project since January, when I was originally sworn in. One of the first conversations I had with the president of UNLV [Neal Smatresk] was to ask him why are we focusing on the UNLV events center as opposed to the student village first.
What did he say?
At the time, President Smatresk said there had been a focus on the student village, and that I was just coming in at the time that we were focusing on the mega events center. The mega events center has continued to be the focus. How to proceed, all of these renderings that have been brought to us. A lot of the legislation has to do with the mega events center, and so at the time, it was presented to me as a timing issue, but I have come to see what really, truly is the focus, and I would like to see that change.
You believe UNLV shouldn’t serve the interests of the resort community. What is the reason for doing so?
With a project of this size and nature, it’s important to get community buy-in and industry buy-in, and that’s from all sorts of industries across our state. I just want to make sure we don’t confuse the priority so that their priorities become our priorities. I’m all in favor of making sure we interact with, that we partner with, that we strategize alongside the resort industry. What concerns me, and continues to concern me, is that we may be going a little bit too far in starting to behave like an extension of the resort community, rather than as an institution of higher learning.
You do support a stadium.
The stadium is for the purpose of having football on campus. The stadium will bring in what the student village will bring in, which is on-campus community. A byproduct of having a football stadium on campus is that we may be able to have events. I want to make sure that we’re looking at it in that order.
PROJECT LEADER DON SNYDER
What’s the latest with UNLV NOW?
We made a decision to step back and move forward without having MajesticRealty as a development partner. It reflects the evolution of this project. When this project started two and a half years ago, it was very much a UNLV-centered project. It was designed to bring UNLV football back on campus, as most traditional universities have, because it creates a sense of campus life and activity, and brings the community to the campus. It was seen as a good evolution for the university, and a catalyst for future development of the campus. Over the course of the past two and a half years, the project evolved and took on a very different complexion.
Some of it was done by the work of Mark Rosentraub, who is considered to be the leading academic expert in the country, in the world, for athletic-type facilities. He did the University of Michigan Center for Sports Management. He’s studied it for the past 30 years, and has written four books. He was commissioned by the university to do an economic impact study. His study said that Las Vegas is one of the few metropolitan areas in the country that doesn’t have a large controlled environment or stadium to accommodate a major event, athletic as well as entertainment. For the benefit of the university, but also for the benefit of the community, he suggested that it made sense to think about a larger facility. It became much more than a university-centric facility. It would meet the needs of the university, but would also meet the needs of the resort industry as a whole.
Regent Allison Stephens is calling for the student village to be built before the stadium. What are your thoughts?
First of all, she is the newest regent, and I will tell you that I’ve never met with her. I haven’t had a chance to talk with her about the project. I do have a lot of experience in redevelopment, and I think that this project is a redevelopment project, redefining the university, but also the area around the university will be enhanced.
I was involved with The Smith Center for the Performing Arts from the very beginning, and I was involved with the Fremont Street Experience before then. For redevelopment to take place, you have to do something that creates enough energy so that other things will happen. In this case, it takes the mega events center, in my mind, happening first, to create the reasons for the other developments, whether it’s the student village or the surrounding areas. You need to create enough energy so that private investors and those other businesses are prepared to do it.
I think it would be difficult to get investors to be prepared in a student village unless there was enough economic energy around it to justify their commitment. I’d like to see both done, but I think the sequence needs to start with the mega events center, or you don’t create enough energy to allow the rest of it to happen successfully.