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Will a ‘new and improved’ effort to address regional issues actually address regional issues?



This time, it’s going to be different.

Efforts to redefine and invigorate Southern Nevada’s economy with pumped-up and improved regional cooperation have been around for decades. There have been sporadic successes — construction of the Beltway, the arguable benefits of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in bringing tourism to the region, efforts to ease homelessness.

But despite promises from the Southern Nevada’s multiple governments, businesses and nonprofits, some of the biggest problems are as bad or worse than ever.

And hundreds of thousands of people are still struggling to survive a crushing recession that mocks the captains of industry who a decade ago promised that Southern Nevada would grow, grow, grow forever, and all anyone had to do for success was to hitch a ride on the economic rocket.

Those predictions turned out to be premature.

Some of those captains of industry, along with staff and elected leaders, analysts and representatives of nonprofit service organizations, met Feb. 8 in downtown Las Vegas to announce that a regional initiative, dubbed “Southern Nevada Strong” and supported with a $3.5 million federal grant, would address some of the crippling impediments to “improving our community’s quality of life and economic competitiveness.”

Speakers at the five-hour meeting did not shy from the bad news:

• Housing and transportation costs consume more than half of the average Southern Nevada household budget, with one speaker putting the number at more than 60 percent on average, limiting funds for health care or any other spending.

• Lack of economic diversity means that an economic swing affecting the resort industry has a disproportionate local impact.

• Nevada’s freeway congestion rose 35 percent between 2000 and 2010 and is the third-worst in the west, after Los Angeles and Phoenix.

• Housing has lost 61 percent of its value in Southern Nevada since 2006, compared to 35 percent nationally.

• The Las Vegas Valley saw a 79 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities last year.

Some of these problems can be pinned on the collapse of the artificially inflated housing market, on which so many Nevada fortunes were bet and lost. But other problems — lack of transportation choices that bring workers conveniently to their jobs, lack of economic diversity, education underfunding, health-care failures — are perennial headaches.

Local governments, business and nonprofits have teamed up to address these issues before, but this time it’s going to be different, said Stephanie Garcia-Vause, Henderson community development director. She’s working with the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition, an agency of the region’s local governments, to direct the three-year federal project to address regional planning failures.

The Regional Planning Coalition itself was a creation of the state in 1999, designed to address crises that crossed jurisdictional boundaries. And the RPC was an outgrowth of an even earlier regional effort, the Southern Nevada Strategic Planning Authority, to address the same issues.

But this time…

“This is the first time we’ve been able to take a pause, to take a break,” Garcia-Vause said in an interview. As a city planner, she saw the fiscal shock that rampant growth had on public policy and economic development, an impact that profited many and promoted an ethos of keep development going. Garcia-Vauss said she believes that with our shared experience of punishing economic realities, the new regional effort can contribute something important.

Now, “we actually have time to think and plan,” she said.

There are, of course, huge problems. Garcia-Vause winced when I noted that Jeremy Aguero, a financial analyst who emceed the program, said one of the great selling points for local development was our low tax rate — a tax rate, pesky liberals suggest, that has contributed to underfunding education, health care, social services and those very elements that have made some companies avoid Nevada.

But the focus of the new effort is on transportation and housing, with an emphasis on reducing commuting times through mass transit and for pedestrians. The program will take three years, with the first two years devoted to gathering information and studying alternatives.

One of those alternatives to be studied, Garcia-Vause said, would have to be a regional light-rail transit system, a proposal all but completely written off by the Regional Transportation Commission almost a decade ago, but which now is being promoted as a possibility.

There are a couple of big differences in this new and improved regional effort, she said, compared to previous collaborations.

One is that the federal grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department puts us in a favorable position to receive future federal dollars. That’s good news for a state that, according to the Tax Foundation, a national nonpartisan profit, is among the worst in receiving a commensurate return from our federal tax dollars.

“That’s the ticket to actually playing the game,” she said.

Garcia-Vause said there is another reason for us — that is, all of the 2 million who live in Southern Nevada — to be hopeful. The relative success of downtown Las Vegas, which has seen an influx of investment, serves as a model for other regional “cores.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re really in a good position right now.”