Las Vegas Rolls the Dice on a New City Hall

Mayor Oscar Goodman sees a new city hall as the catalyst that will set off a wave of development downtown.
January 2010
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman says he likes the modernist, semi-circular city hall tower he's worked in for the past 10 years. But he likes new development even more. So he was delighted last month when the city council went along with his plan to construct a whole new city hall building. Goodman hopes moving city offices downtown not only will revitalize a tired business district but also set off a chain reaction of real estate deals that could swing Las Vegas from its current bust back to a boom.

Let's hope he's right. Because at the moment, it's hard to make the case that Las Vegas really needs new offices. The "old" city hall was expanded just six years ago. The police department is set to move out soon, freeing up some more space. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped city has been laying off workers and holding positions vacant. Las Vegas is short on a few amenities, but workspace for its employees is not one of them.

Of course, Goodman isn't looking at this like a space planner. What he wants more than anything is to get some construction jobs going in a city that has been losing thousands of them. Work on the $185 million city hall is set to begin early this year. If all goes according to Goodman's plan, it will catalyze office and retail projects planned for nearby blocks downtown; jump-start a casino project on land the city swapped with a developer; and free up some more land where the old city hall sits, allowing it to be developed into a hotel, a casino, and possibly an arena. "This is our mini-stimulus plan," Goodman says.

Financing for the city hall is backed by Build America Bonds, a new money-raising tool created by the federal stimulus law. Goodman's critics say the city may have trouble paying off the debt if all the hoped-for development doesn't materialize by the time interest on the bonds comes due. Goodman counters that it's a risk worth taking. The real estate market will rebound, he says, and if it doesn't, the city will have much bigger problems to worry about. "We're talking 5 years out," he says of the first interest installment. "If we can't make that payment, then we'll be speaking Mandarin and eating chow mein."