Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ever since President Obama cited Las Vegas trips as an example of corporate greed run amok, 340 planned conventions and business meetings have been canceled there, costing the gambling mecca 36,700 hotel-room nights and an estimated $130 million in non-gambling revenue.

On Tuesday, the president heads to Las Vegas to attend a star-studded fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. While some hope Mr. Obama will try to set things right - even apologize - top officials there aren’t holding their breath.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, said he has been denied a meeting with Mr. Obama while he is in Las Vegas. The fundraiser, at the Caesars Palace Colosseum, is set to feature actress/singer Bette Midler and singer Sheryl Crow.

“I am disappointed at the hypocrisy shown by this administration,” the governor said. “President Obama is coming to Las Vegas … for a political fundraiser, but he will not help the struggling families in Las Vegas and Nevada who are out of work because of his reckless comments.”

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Of the planned fundraiser, Mr. Gibbons said: “Apparently our money is good enough for the president, but our tourism, jobs and economic future are not.

“This is politics, pure and simple. President Obama stood for change, but all he has done is brought negative economic change to Nevada.”

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who demanded an apology after Mr. Obama’s comment, recently said that he hopes that during the trip, “somebody places me close to him so I can get him to do the right thing and tell people that he recognizes Las Vegas as a great spot for serious meetings.”

But he is reportedly not invited to the Reid soiree.

Although the mayor was vocal after the president’s Feb. 10 remark, his office said he would not be available at all over the holiday weekend to comment on the coming visit.

At the height of Americans’ anger over corporate executives’ huge bonuses and travel on private planes, Mr. Obama made what seemed to be an innocuous statement during a town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., where he had traveled to urge support for economic-stimulus legislation.

“You can’t get corporate jets. You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas, or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime,” Mr. Obama said. “There has got to be some accountability and some responsibility, and that’s something that I intend to impose as president of the United States.”

Days after the presidential warning, financial juggernaut Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which accepted $10 billion in federal bailout funds, moved a three-day conference from the Las Vegas Strip to San Francisco. Wells Fargo & Co., which received $25 billion in federal funds, canceled a scheduled employee conference in Las Vegas.

On May 19, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported 340 event cancellations in the 90 days since Feb. 18, which it said has cost the local economy about $131.6 million in lost spending.

While some point to Mr. Obama’s comment as the reason Las Vegas has floundered, others blame the economic meltdown.

“The drop-off in Las Vegas convention business that Gibbons alluded to is not because of anything said or done by Obama, but should instead be attributed to the economy that turned sour when George W. Bush was in office,” the Las Vegas Sun wrote in a May 20 editorial.

Jan Jones, senior vice president for government communications at Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and mayor of Las Vegas from 1991 to 1999, said the president’s comment didn’t cause the city’s downturn.

“The president didn’t say anything inappropriate,” she said. “We’d like to hear the president say encouraging things about travel and meetings in general. I don’t think it’s just germane to Las Vegas.”

Still, she said with a laugh: “Would we have liked him to say, you know, ‘You shouldn’t be going on a junket to Orlando’? Well, sure. … But to ask him to apologize, no,” she said, adding that Mr. Obama is supporting the city just by visiting.

Several other officials and executives contacted for this article seemed skittish.

Asked whether Mr. Obama’s comment that “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas” has had any effect on the city, Cara Roberts, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said: “That’s not what he said; that’s not what he said.”

“It seems like you’re, um - got a particular agenda,” she said before referring any other questions to another agency.

Top executives at Caesars Palace and the city’s convention center did not return phone calls.

White House officials also didn’t want to talk about the visit. The Reid event will be closed to most reporters, and Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs joked on Friday that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Tickets for the Reid fundraiser, dubbed “The Good Fight,” start at $50 for the concert. But a $29,600 contribution, to be split between Mr. Reid’s campaign and the Nevada Democratic Party, gives donors access to the Senate majority leader and the president.

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