Moving Beyond Gambling

LAS VEGAS -- A. Somer Hollingsworth, CEO of the Nevada Development Authority, has lived here since 1953, when Las Vegas was better known for courts that granted quick divorces than gaming, and gambling profits "went out in paper bags back East," he says, referring to the Mafia's ties to early casinos here.

By 2000, Wall Street had embraced big investments in gaming, prompting larger and more lavish resort hotels. World-famous chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse opened restaurants. Casino mogul Steve Wynn brought fine-arts exhibits under the same roof as slot machines. "We had a utopia," Hollingsworth says.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Travel and tourism came to a standstill. "Fifteen thousand people lost their jobs just like this, overnight," he says. "It's taken us four years to recover."

The attacks brought home the need for Las Vegas to diversify its economy. The state has been wooing companies aggressively ever since, especially in California -- Nevada's larger neighbor and friendly rival. A Nevada billboard towering over Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles shows California's state flag with the bear missing from its logo, a not-so-subtle hint that even the bear fled for Nevada's low insurance rates and zero income tax.

"We now are able to recruit companies that five years ago wouldn't even have stopped to say 'Hi,'" Hollingsworth says.

Another plus: No threats of earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. The city is the main disaster backup center for many firms.

QUALCOMM, a San Diego-based developer of wireless technology, broke ground last year on a 32-acre facility in North Las Vegas. It's working with UNLV on homeland-security initiatives.

Varian Medical Systems, based in California's Silicon Valley, moved parts of its oncology systems business and all of its cargo screening and security operations to Las Vegas. "The proximity of an international airport, the university, the cost of living and the proximity to Southern California's vendor base" sealed the deal, says Lester Boeh, a Varian vice president.

For employees who had to move, "the initial reaction was trepidation," says James Johnson, general manager of Varian's security and inspection products division. Once here, they were excited. "In California, they were struggling with their schools, taxes. Las Vegas is a much more stable community."

When Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, he went to Los Angeles to have his prostate gland removed.

Guinn's and other high-profile cases put the spotlight on a void in Las Vegas' medical care. Last September, the Nevada Cancer Institute opened. A month later, the center had 1,000 patient visits.

"I grew up mostly on the East Coast in Baltimore," says Heather Murren, president and CEO of the cancer center. Later, she worked for Merrill Lynch in New York City. "Great education, medicine, the arts were all a given."

When relatives who had moved to Vegas needed cancer treatment, Murren realized that "a lot of the things that we had taken for granted didn't exist."

The community quickly lined up behind the push for a cancer research center. Major industries from resorts and banking to developers raised $70 million and the center obtained a $52 million loan.

Diane Gregory, executive director of physician marketing and support services for St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, a non-profit group, has seen a big shift.

"In the '80s, it was very difficult to recruit physicians to Las Vegas," she says. "People didn't think there were hospitals. We had physicians ask us, 'Do you live on the Strip?'"

Charitable giving also is growing. The Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, the Las Vegas tennis great's outreach program, raises more than $42 million a year for underprivileged and at-risk children. United Way contributions doubled from two years ago.

'Feng Shui' Comes to Vegas

There is no fourth floor in the Boca Raton luxury condominiums going up near the Strip. That's because under Chinese feng shui principles, "4" represents death, developer Jerry Peterson says.

Here, in the land of cookie-cutter homes, a developer caring about positive life energy and spiritual balance is a sign that urban sensibilities are surfacing. So is the surge of high-rise condos planned downtown and near the Strip.

Housing prices are rising. The median sales price of existing single-family homes topped $300,000 last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. The U.S. median is about $216,000.

That's still a bargain for Californians, who face prices of $500,000 or more in big markets. When software provider InfoGenesis moved some of its operations here from Santa Barbara, many executives made six-figure profits on the sale of their homes, says Drew Hulburd, a manager. The job-applicant pool is much larger here, he says, partly because of the low cost of living.

Noninvasive Medical Technologies, which has 13 patents for instruments to quickly evaluate medical conditions on the battlefield or after a terrorist attack and other emergencies, moved from Auburn Hills, Mich. Executives rave about the red-carpet treatment they got in Nevada, along with $200,000 in tax relief. Vendors are eager to do business because the company is near hotels and a major airport, says Ann McCaughan, executive vice president.

McCaughan, a nature lover, also enjoys her new setting: "I have more wilderness around me. The largest desert wildlife refuge is 30 minutes from here, and the Grand Canyon is in my backyard."

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• NMT has 13 patents for medical products
• $200,000 in tax relief upon moving to Vegas
• NMT HQ has moved from Ann Arbor, MI

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