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Misplaced priorities = missed economic opportunities

As Las Vegans, we thrive on celebrities.

Over the years, many were known by one name — Frank, Elvis, Celine and even Britney.

Within the past few weeks, we went gaga over Floyd and Manny and all those A-listers who showed up for the “Fight of the Century.”

Before we caught a breath, Rock in Rio brought two weekends of music’s big names.

But mixed between those recent weekends, we missed a couple of other major events. And those whiffs speak volumes about what’s holding us back from diversifying our economy, becoming a tech center and all those other dreams development officials keep rolling out.

Tony Hsieh leveraged his Zappos cachet — and no doubt some cash — to stage a version of Collision, an idea imported from Ireland. It was the place to be for technocrats and startups. Thought leaders and representatives of giant tech companies mingled with guys in denim who had grown tired of raising small change on crowdfunding sites. The event even drew some national media, although a Forbes column trashing the level of startups probably wasn’t what organizers had hoped for. Locally, the event went largely unnoticed outside the office co-op community downtown.

Collision would seem to have been timed to dovetail with SALT, a high-end gathering of hedge fund executives at Bellagio. Yet when I asked an unscientific sample of six SALT attendees about Collision, five had no idea what I was talking about. Once I explained about all those startups looking for funding, one suggested that somebody should have set up a shuttle route.

Of course, nobody had. And that’s part of the problem.

Now, SALT drew a set of A-listers that rivaled Mayweather-Pacquiao. Some of the speakers even had that first-name recognition factor — people like Condi and T. Boone. Others were famous, if only recognizable in context — like former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, presidential campaign strategists Karl Rove and James Carville, actor-turned-activist Michael J. Fox and George Papandreou, the former prime minister of Greece. And then there were the intentionally low-key gents who move markets and bend Fortune 500 companies to their will, plus the faceless undersecretaries who helped steer the economy from the brink under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

These people are the true celebrities, but by and large they can move around the city at will, untroubled by autograph seekers or gawking, camera-toting tourists. The only thing that makes them appear different is their penchant for white shirts, ties and suits in a town that does none of that.

As I looked around the Grand Ballroom, I found myself wondering whether I was the only one there who didn’t control $1 billion in assets.

Fox Business and Bloomberg News were broadcasting from an adjacent room that served as an odd sort of trade show. One booth was from Grant Thornton, a major accounting consultancy that has a Nevada office. It’s in Reno, a good indication of how they see Las Vegas. Others were from a variety of asset management firms whose literature suggests that coming to SALT is the only exposure they have to Las Vegas.

And then there was the booth from Puerto Rico. Yes, there were economic development officials there from the island that seemingly has as much trouble being taken seriously by hedge fund managers as does Las Vegas. But at least they were there, in the face of the decision makers, raising awareness for a time downstream when it will matter.

There was no similar effort from Nevada. The Global Business complex will be going up as soon as the Riviera, just up the Strip, can come down. But nobody invested in a booth to tell Las Vegas’ story to the money men.

Tennis star-turned-banker/philanthropist Andre Agassi, on the program to speak about ‘impact investing’, was the only local talent on display.

It’s a shame.

At a time when Las Vegas aspires to be so much more than it is today, we can’t seem to look past the glitz and glamour and see the substance that moves the world economy. If only we could connect the dots and present ourselves as more than a libertine desert oasis, they might help us grow out of our awkward economic adolescence.

It’s as obvious as the Luxor’s light from outer space.

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