December 15, 2005
By BARBARA TRAVERS
Firm: First American Title Co.
The slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” may work well for tourism in Sin City, but Richard Lee makes it his business to get the word out about this western boomtown. Since 1989, Lee has been guiding the real estate community on development and growth. He advises developers, investors, business owners and gaming companies on opportunities and acquisitions.
Lee travels and lectures across America, sharing his insight and information on Vegas development. As “One of The Most Influential Businessmen in Southern Nevada,” an honor bestowed by In Business magazine, Lee combines his passion for Vegas with the facts and serves as ambassador-at-large.
How does a real estate guy get from Idaho to Nevada?
Twenty years ago I was in my family's sporting goods business in Coeur d'Alene watching the big chains run over the independents. I went to Vegas for a vacation and saw a lot going on. There was vibrancy to Vegas.
I moved down just prior to developer Steve Wynn instigating a paradigm shift in the gaming business with the creation of his $600 million resort, The Mirage. He defied the odds by moving the profit center from the casino floor to the hotel's rooms, entertainment, retail and restaurants. Prior to that all you needed was a carpet, a buffet and a parking garage and you were in business. It changed the business of Vegas.
I had an interest in real estate and started in the title business, first residential then commercial. The timing was right when I arrived; the growth was just getting started.
You've become a real estate prognosticator for Las Vegas. So, which came first Richard Lee or the current "gold rush" of development?
They coincided. I was smart enough, or lucky enough, to realize people needed to know what was going on in the Vegas market. Being in the title business, I'm in the unique position to be a conduit of information. I've built relationships with developers and builders to get the word out. Back in the 1980s, you couldn't find a lender to invest in Vegas. They didn't understand Vegas and the gaming industry. I educated them on what a strong and viable industry we have. Now every institutional lender wants a piece of Vegas. I get calls "Find us a project, we want to put our money in Vegas" all the time.
Has Las Vegas taken the economic diversity route? How is the city attracting 21st century industries?
We have diversification. A huge emerging market is the medical field. We've built five state-of-the art hospitals in the last 10 years, with three more under construction. As for technology, Las Vegas is unique as we're relatively disaster-proof, so our infrastructure is enviable.
Our emerging markets are dwarfed, however, by the Goliath industry the entertainment industry. The biggest thing happening is job creation in the gaming industry. That attracts people, so they move in. We have had 5,000 to 6,000 people a month moving to Las Vegas for the last 15 years. To keep up with that growth we've had to build a new school a month, on average. That's 12 schools a year. That's phenomenal. The housing market then drives and creates industries outside the gaming/resort industry.
What was your very first job?
I worked for the Forest Service in the woods of Idaho. But mostly I worked for my father at our store, Lee's Outdoor Outfitters. It was the largest sporting goods store in north Idaho. I spent a lot of time driving to and from Seattle, buying down coats and outdoor equipment.
Looking back on your career, what business deal still makes you smile?
As a title sales guy, that would be the refinance of the MGM Grand Hotel. It was the largest single title policy ever written on a single piece of property in the United States. It was a very competitive process and a highlight of my career. I was a hero for a while, but like anything: "Thank you very much, that's great, what's next?"
If you had to choose your next career, what would it be?
I'm a deal junkie, so I'd stay in the real estate business and focus more on deals. There are groundbreaking real estate projects and concepts coming to Vegas in the entertainment realm that are very appealing. This version of "What's next?" is exciting to me.
What's it like living in Las Vegas?
I moved here with my family and raised three children. There are great schools, good people, basically all the same things other cities have for a healthy family life. We have stoplights, sidewalks and viable communities, just like any prospering city. I was a scoutmaster for years. I've found a certain beauty here in the desert that can't be duplicated.
The quality of life in Vegas is the best-kept secret, such as affordable housing and outstanding outdoor recreation we have Lake Mead in the summer and Mt. Charleston for snow skiing. You can find anything you want in Vegas 24 hours a day. Not that you always do it, but it's nice to know you can. And, yes, every now and then we spot Celine Dion at the mall.
What are you reading?
"The World is Flat," "Blink" and "The Tipping Point." And, for my health, "The Liver Cleansing Diet."
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