Our owner, Gary Kibler, was quoted at the end of this Time Magazine Article. Originally Published Mar. 28, 2012
In this week’s cover story, Rana Foroohar and Bill Saporito cite This Time Is Different, a book by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, to point out that “economic rebounds that come after financial crises are harder and take a lot longer, thanks to all the unwinding of debt that must be done — in this case, largely from housing. No other postwar recession had to lift the dead-weight of the real estate collapse that we’ve just been through.” Case in point is the frenzied boom that swept Las Vegas, which became a horrific bust once the bubble burst. But even in Vegas, there are signs of a comeback — though the betting on it by analysts is still tepid.
In 2004, Isabell Ysassi and her husband, Todd House, started a recycling business in Las Vegas. Renu Oil of America not only recycled used cooking oil from kitchens along the Las Vegas Strip, it also handled more traditional recycling of trash. House had been an executive chef at the Flamingo; Ysassi was a cook and later a dealer. She remembers the first time he asked for her help with recycling the trash. She had already worked a full shift and was wearing a skirt and high heels. He took her to the docks behind one of the casinos and told her to roll up her sleeves. “It was so embarrassing.” She thought helping run the business meant “I’m gonna do clerical or boss people around, tell them what to do.” Instead he wanted her to pick through garbage to sort out cardboard, plastic and aluminum. “This is your company,” he told her. “You’re gonna help me with this.”
In the beginning, it was just him, her and one other employee. And then it became hers alone. House had a heart attack and passed away in the spring of 2008, just as the Great Recession deepened and business dried up. Ysassi, 52, turned to her two adult children for help even though they had established lives of their own. (One of her daughters was studying for the bar.) “They decided to give up their own dream to help me run the company.”
By then credit was tightening. She and her kids stopped taking pay for themselves, but things got so bad they nearly defaulted on $44,000 worth of paychecks to their employees; at the last minute her son had to negotiate an advance payment from one of their clients, allowing Renu Oil to take payment early for recycled goods they wouldn’t ship for a few months.
The quick thinking saved the business, and now the good-humored Ysassi is finally able to savor the dream her of her late husband. Over the last couple of years, the company has grown its business to several Strip properties as well as a few hundred local restaurants. They’ve installed sorting stations at the docks of several casinos, and they’ve grown to 200 employees, all of whom are receiving medical insurance, workman’s comp and a 401K. “I remember him so well,” she says of her late spouse. “He would tell me you need to keep going and keep this company going.”
Ysassi’s tale mirrors the mood of Las Vegas right now: Been down but clawing back. Small business owners are a bit more upbeat about the city’s fortunes, and prognosticators more reserved, but after taking as bad a beating as any American city during the Great Recession, the Las Vegas thaw may finally be taking hold.
Many indicators are pointing up. Last week the state’s department of employment reported Nevada’s jobless rate is down, to 12.7% as of January, from a high of 14% in October 2010. (The number of Nevadans out of work is hovering at around 175,000.) Taxable sales are up, and hourly wages have have increased slightly. And the big numbers are up, too, when 2011 is compared to the 2010. Visitor volume hit 38.9 million, just shy of 2007’s record peak. Average room rates are up almost 11% to $105.11. Room nights occupied are up 5.3%, and gaming revenue is up 3.5%.
“Many key Nevada economic indicators continue to move in positive territory and levels not seen since the start of the recession,” says the state’s chief economist, Bill Anderson, the author of the unemployment report. Still, local analysts are more apt to use words such as “fragile,” “delicate” or “uneven” to describe the economy. Yes, it’s better, they’ll tell you, but keep things in perspective.
Like this: During the boom the local unemployment rate was 4% and job growth was an impressive 6% a year, four times the rate of national economy. There were 112,000 construction workers in June 2006, 12% of the total labor market. Now there’s a mere 36,800 such jobs — and frankly, a drive through town makes you wonder how there are that many: Las Vegas remains littered with the half-built carcasses of shopping centers, Strip resorts and mixed use developments.
And while the region added 11,800 non-construction, non municipal jobs, it still shed some 150,000 jobs. Brian Gordon, a principal with consulting firm Applied Analysis, says that the economy here will grow at a “slow and steady clip” through 2012, but expects that the unemployment rate will remain above 10% by the end of the year.
Oh, then there’s the house market. Median home values were $290,000 in 2006 — small starter homes on the suburban fringes were routinely selling for well north of $200,000. Today the median value stands at around $100,000, a figure which accounts for short sales and foreclosures. Homes in the better parts of town are holding their own, and there are signs of construction picking up a tad. Over the last few years the city is averaging around 1,500 to 2,000 new housing starts, according to the Clark County Department of Planning. But it’s far off from 4,000 to 12,000 units going up during the boom. “What we have to look forward to,” says Anderson, “is moderate growth but arguably more sustainable.”
Gaming and tourism still drive the Las Vegas economy — the sector has added 10,500 new jobs — and will ultimately propel the city’s economy forward. But it’s common knowledge here that in the long run, Las Vegas can’t simply sit back and count on new waves of mega-resorts to keep the cash till full.
Somer Hollingsworth, president of the Nevada Development Agency, which is tasked with recruiting new businesses, says that after years of talk, the region is really getting serious about diversification. A recent report issued by the Las Vegas-based think tank Brookings Mountain West, identified seven industries the region state should seek to nurture or expand, including clean energy, IT ecosystems, health and medical services and aerospace.
There have been some notable new firms in recent years. Online shoe retailer Zappos arrived in 2004. Switch runs one of the world largest data centers, a two million square foot behemoth that allows Fortune 1000 companies to back up their servers. (In addition to abundant sunshine, Las Vegas also is immune from virtually every natural disaster.) Hollingsworth touts a company called Linq360, which provides space for IT companies working in the hospitality industry to creatively collaborate.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas is trying to build up a solar energy sector, and Hollingsworth wants to see the region go after a bigger piece of the aerospace and defense pie. Predator drones are already operated out of nearby Creech Air Force, about 35 miles northwest of town; he dreams of moving R&D and manufacturing of the drones to Las Vegas.
Admittedly, plans like that represent “stretch goals for us,” says Hollingsworth, efforts to think big and think beyond one more glittering resort. “If we really want to move this thing up and play with the big guys, we have to create some high quality jobs.”
But though Las Vegas’ weather and lack of income taxes are draws for new businesses, the state’s mediocre education and sense of rootlessness are liabilities. “We haven’t seen a lot of whole lot of bringing new industries wholesale to Southern Nevada,” says Gordon. “That doesn’t happen over night.” In 2000, 24.5% of the workforce was involved in gaming; two years ago the number was down to only 19.5%.
Still, the biggest symbol of Las Vegas’s recovery is not on the Strip. Caesars is planning a $500 million entertainment district on the Strip centered on a 550-foot Ferris Wheel, but the real action has shifted downtown. In recent weeks the city has seen the opening of a $470 million performing arts complex, a $42 million mob museum — a driving force of outgoing mayor (and former mob defense attorney) Oscar Goodman, and a new city hall. This comes on top of massive investments downtown in recent years, which has seen the opening of a BRT line through the central city, the completion of a new downtown bus terminal and the ongoing renovation of old downtown casinos.
“I’m very optimistic about the status of the downtown economy,” says Rich Worthington, the president of the Molasky Group of Companies, a major developer. “I’ve been involved in the last 14-15 years. I think it’s on the upswing again.”
The optimism is catching among local businesses — even if the analysts aren’t ready to place any big bets. Tonia Fike, a master stylist with the Square Colour Salon and Spa in the prosperous Summerlin district on the west edge of the Las Vegas Valley says customers are still spending less money per visit — but there are more of them coming in and her sales have risen 7.3% since 2010. “We call it more butts in the chair,” she says and the salon is now getting ready to expand and provide room to train more stylists. Things had gotten so bad during the recession that she decided, against her policy, to accept personal checks. Now, she is switching back to her preferred mode of payment: credit cards. “That is reflective of people becoming a little more stable,” she says.
Gary Kibler, who owns Porta-Vac Pool Services, has been in the pool maintenance business for 27 years. He’s seen all types, from showgirls to attorneys to magicians. He also remembers the Vegas boom years as “a feeding frenzy” with new homes and pools being built at breakneck speed. All that dried up with the recession and the foreclosures crisis. Now, however, he’s noticed that “people are buying these foreclosed homes and they feel they have extra money. They’re much more in a spending mood than a couple years ago.” Clients are so happy to have good homes at bargain basement prices that they’re more willing to splurge for that $1,000 new filter. He doesn’t expect the foreclosure inventory to work itself out for another four to five years. But it’s setting up another transformation of Vegas. “This could become the world’s largest garage sale.”