A $450 million gamble on Las Vegas’ future

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

Photo courtesy Geri Kodey

I have seen the future of Las Vegas, and its name is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Or at least, I’d like to believe that’s the case.

Almost 20 years in the making, the Smith Center is the public-private culmination of a vision shared by Martin, former Boyd Gaming Corporation President Don Snyder, and a cast of other notable local enthusiasts of the arts (and multimillionaires), and it’s a vision fully realized today, cast in marble, stone, steel, glass and the hard work of 3,000 workers. As Nevada Ballet Theatre Artistic Director James Canfield put it, “The vision for this facility is a testament to the community.”

It’s all a little much to take in, especially as presented on a whirlwind media tour as hosted Friday by the Smith Center. Each component of the center deserves its own focus, from the educational programming (which actually began five years ago) and the classic nightclub atmosphere of Cabaret Jazz, to the very New York vibe of the Troesh Studio Theater’s multipurpose performance space and the crown jewel of the center, Reynolds Hall, an immaculate, five-story, Art Deco testament to the performing arts inspired by the best elements of more than 100 of the world’s finest performing arts venues. But you’ll surely read much more comprehensive coverage in the publications and websites of my colleagues from the likes of Vegas Seven, Desert Companion, Las Vegas CityLife, etc.

For me, the mere construction of the Smith Center — enabled equally by private donations (which kicked off with $170 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation alone) and public funding — wouldn’t be enough to make me believe that our sometimes culturally daft city could support (and therefore, justify) such an impressive endeavor. In my purview, consumer money talks much louder than that of elite investors, and based on early ticket sales, consumers’ wallets are singing. In December, the Smith Center reported selling 10,000 Broadway Las Vegas subscription packages. At the media tour on Friday, a PR pal representing the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas (the Smith Center’s caterer of record) told me tickets for the first Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performances at Reynolds were already selling out (as of this posting, they’re still available, but in limited sections). And during our tour of the Troesh Studio Theater, Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Patricia Pieper Fink said that 1,800 of the 2,100 seats for that organization’s March 24 debut performance were sold as of Friday. Sure, this could all be just initial excitement from a culture-starved community (although, was this enthusiasm present for all the years the Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theater called UNLV’s Performing Arts Center home?), but it’s still excitement backed by dollars, and hell, tickets for the fall season’s 48 performances from the touring version of Wicked haven’t even gone on sale yet (which Martin expects to sell out in six hours).

Of course, all of this cultural activity stands somewhat alone on the 61-acre site formerly owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, landlocked in a wide-open part of downtown that sits between the railroad tracks and the I-15 freeway, physically and culturally separated from the denser, more active areas of the city’s core, including the Arts District and Fremont East. Its only current neighbor on the now-named Symphony Park plot is the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which is a nice piece of eye candy (its distinctive, twisted metal building designed by Frank Gehry), but otherwise offers nothing to potential patrons of the arts. Were one to plan a night out on the town, what would be their nearest dining options? Mundo at the World Market Center, located west across Grand Central Parkway, is the nearest thing to a walkable restaurant, and the nearest shopping is the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, but an outdoor discount mall doesn’t exactly fit anyone’s idea of a mature, urban cultural experience.

Newland Real Estate Group is overseeing the master plan for the land, which is slated to also include the relocated and renamed Discovery Children’s Museum, a Charlie Palmer boutique hotel, an unnamed hotel/casino developed by Forest City, potentially more Cleveland Clinic facilities, and “several residential blocks” developed by Newland. While the Discovery Children’s Museum is under construction and therefore a safe bet, my experience watching far too many of these mixed-use, quasi-urban projects go unfinished or half-developed leaves me wary of the other pieces of Newland’s puzzle actually coming together.

What Symphony Park needs is organic development, based on demand, similar to what’s happening in the Arts District. A gallery begets a bar begets a restaurant begets another gallery, etc. Unfortunately, the infrastructure for such growth doesn’t currently exist, and the master plan has every bit of space reserved for the aforementioned puzzle pieces. Does this area really need a casino? Are downtown occupancy rates high enough to justify opening more hotel rooms? Are people going to move into residential units when there’s already a surplus of unsold, unoccupied condominiums all over downtown?

The Smith Center is the future, of that I have no doubt. But it might be a bleak future if this cultural crown jewel remains a diamond among the rough for too long.

1 Comment

  1. Marilyn Perez March 7, 2012 12:47 pm 

    Beautiful building! The Art Deco structure reminds me of the train station in downtown LA., across from Alvera Street.