LAS VEGAS — The history of Las Vegas runs through the iconic figures who built the city. Bugsy Siegel. Frank Sinatra. Elvis. Steve Wynn. Debbie Harris. Debbie who? Here, let's introduce you.
Debbie Harris is a middle-aged Rotarian who enjoys walks, listening to novels in the car, taking road trips and spending time with extended family. She's never worked in a casino, and she's squeezing in college classes around a full-time job in training and marketing.
In short, Debbie Harris is probably a lot like you. And together, Debbie and fellow Las Vegans are the emblems of Las Vegas' next big era — the Era of Normal.
From rising household income to increasing median age, from the shrinking share of gaming jobs to the growing number of households with kids, indicators show Las Vegas, the cow town that grew up as Sin City, is in many ways becoming Anytown, USA.
Today, Las Vegas has reached a tipping point. Sure, it'll always be a global mecca for millions who want to gamble and carouse, but it's becoming much more than that. Post-boom, Las Vegas is a place to have a career and raise a family, even if you have nothing to do with gaming. And as people stay, they're remaking Sin City, joining clubs, starting businesses and encouraging friends and family to join them.
That's not to say this is the first time southern Nevada has had loyal locals who care about the community. And thousands of Las Vegans likely would vamoose faster than a card counter who just spotted casino security if they weren't underwater on their homes. But fact is, hardly anybody's skipping town.
A new Vegas
The city's newfound stability surprises Jeremy Aguero, a fourth-generation Nevadan and native Las Vegan who studies economic and demographic trends. Aguero's firm, Applied Analysis, gave a presentation in 2009 about top local trends to watch. On the list? Population flight from Southern Nevada as casino construction ground to a halt and people who moved here for jobs fled 14 percent unemployment.
Three years on, that hasn't happened.
"It was a relatively abrupt end to that chapter of gaming and tourism construction, and yet the community goes on," Aguero said. "It continues, and people have stayed here. Who knew?"
Debbie Harris might have known.
It wasn't a resort job that lured Harris, 53, from Connecticut in 2006. She moved for the warm weather and because she had family here. When her job as a real estate social-media marketer disappeared, she wasn't leaving Las Vegas. She opened a social-media marketing consulting business, Performance Intermedia.
Then there's Lisa Jackson, 42, from Austintown, Ohio, who started falling for Las Vegas in 2000 while visiting friends here. She dreamed of moving here, and finally did in 2010, after her mother passed away. Jackson took a marketing job with a local financial-services firm, then was laid off in 2011. A second job that involved marketing and administration for bridal shows also fell victim to the recession.
But, like Harris, Jackson stayed. She's now self-employed as a makeup artist, freelance writer and website builder.
Harris and Jackson constantly tell friends and colleagues back East they need to move here, too. And they aren't recruiting alone.
Jackson and Harris represent a new normal: The job isn't the only reason to be here.
Normal, by the numbers
"If everyone moved here simply for economic opportunity, we should have had tens of thousands of people leave," Aguero said.
Numbers bear that out.
U-Haul's most recent figures show fewer people renting trucks and trailers to leave, and more driving in. The company helped 0.3 percent more people move here than leave in 2011.
Yes, numbers from the Nevada state demographer show that Clark County lost nearly 16,000 residents from 2008 to 2009. But the county gained that back in 2010. The county had 1.95 million residents when the recession started in 2007, and as of July, it had 1.97 million.
And — what could be more normal than this? — the county gained nearly 13,500 new residents from 2010 to 2011 not because people moved here, but because people here had babies.
That more Las Vegans are staying put is critical. People with roots, and especially those with children, tend to get involved in the community.
Membership in the Nevada Youth Soccer Association is up 25-30 percent in the last two years, despite continued hard times and the $70-per-player fee. Pam Spendlove, the league's registrant, attributed the gain both to more kids in the community and to parents wanting them involved in sports. But it's not just the population that's looking more normal. The city's economic foundation is, too.
Where the action is
When Internet retailer Zappos.com moved from San Francisco to southern Nevada in 2004, the area looked very different. The Strip's construction army was still on the march. When the world talked Vegas, it was about unrelenting growth. Back then, Zappos was a small Internet retailer with 60 employees doing $185 million in annual sales out of a Henderson office complex, driven here in search of low taxes, affordable housing, easier commutes and a customer service-oriented workforce.
Nearly a decade later, the Strip's modern building boom is done, and Zappos is a 1,500-employee, $1.2 billion business making international headlines for its plans to remake downtown Las Vegas as an urban office campus.
Zappos is easily the most visible example of locals who have decided that Las Vegas is a place worth investing time, money and — perhaps most importantly — civic pride.
Las Vegas is full of people moving in from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas, and that's changing its face, Zappos executive Fred Mossler said. The city doesn't have the cultural and educational infrastructure of those cities, but Mossler said it will get there.
"Las Vegas has a community of people who are committed to and passionate about building it," he said. "It just seems like there's so much momentum, and it will just continue to grow," he said.
A fragile tipping point
There's no guarantee the evolution will continue.
For starters, the recession may be driving trends such as the falloff in locals gambling or moving on. Applied Analysis' prediction of out-migration could come true if the national economy picks up and creates jobs elsewhere, Aguero said.
Plus, a greater sense of community is natural in hard times, when people tend to rely more on one another to get by.
As the economy improves, Las Vegas, not traditionally an altruistic place, could revert to form. And we have a long road back from where we've been.2 comments on this story
The "utter failure" of the city's educational system, an important consideration for many businesses considering moving here, will also be a "millstone we are going to carry with us for a long time," Aguero said.
Kotkin, who has studied the evolution of cities worldwide, sounded more optimistic. More families looking for affordable homes could leave California and move here, he said.
Given California's fiscal crisis and housing bust, it's tough for Californians to move these days. But if economic tensions ease in the Golden State and job formation picks up in Nevada, Las Vegas could add households who come here for reasons unrelated to gaming.