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Big in Vegas
Retail real estate's annual Liberace moment
But my momma told me I was wrong
And she begged me to stay at home
But my will was strong and
I had to make it big, in Vegas
Retail is a peculiar corner of the commercial real estate world, an entire industry built around shopping malls and strip centers. For decades, it was a business run by pasty, pie-faced, blue-blazered men looking to pave suburban America. They met every year at a grand Las Vegas convention to talk over each other, describing their development plans with sweeping hand gestures.
A younger crowd has since taken the industry reins but the convention - “ReCon” or “ICSC Las Vegas” - remains: a multi-day bacchanal disguised as a trade show.
During each of the convention’s three days, capitalist conventioneers scurry between elaborate display booths, toting building plans and marketing brochures and pitching new locations to retailers and their brokers.
By 6pm, after a full day of hand-to-hand selling under the blue haze of metal halide lights, the crowd departs to private dinners and cocktail parties. These elaborate parties, sponsored by large real estate companies, are the launching point for legendary nights of intoxication before the conventioneers return to the trade show, hollow-eyed, for more strip mall peddling.
One year, we decided to host our own party. But instead of doing it the typical way, at a big hotel with B-list entertainment - “Join Us Poolside for an Evening with Three Dog Night” - we opted for a seedy bar 30 minutes from the Strip. We wanted the folks that would bypass corporate and predictable and self-select for cheap and dangerous.
I arrived early to alert the bar owner we might have a big crowd. Other than a gentleman at the bar staring into his short glass of brown liquor and despair, the place was empty.
Things changed within minutes when our adventurous attendees arrived. It was an onslaught. And refreshing to see just how many people opted out of bureaucrat parties to try the unknown.
The bar filled like a rush hour subway, and pressed deeper toward the back, I slid into the edge of a banquette and introduced myself to the table of conventioneers. It was loud and the only one I could hear was the woman next to me, dressed in a business suit.
“when did you get in?” I asked.
“Oh, I live here” she replied.
Odd, I thought, but countered with “born here?”, knowing full well no one in their right mind would be born in Las Vegas.
“No, been here about 15 years, though”.
She looked to be in her early thirties, so by my math she came to Vegas as a teenager. Again, odd.
She continued “I grew up in rural Arizona - outside Kingman - where there’s nothing going on and one day I was outside skipping rope when a convertible came flying down my road. The driver saw me and slammed on the brakes. Asked if I wanted to go to Vegas. I knew I wanted out, so I grabbed some things and jumped in -without telling my Mom.”
Whoa, I thought.
“On the drive up here he talked me into trying heroin”.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, I thought.
“So we made it here but he kept forcing the stuff on me and within a few weeks I was strung out and things started to spiral. Then he had me turning tricks”.
I looked for an exit but the crowd had me pinned in to the table.
She continued, despite my nervous smile, “things got dark for a lot of years and I ended up pregnant.”
Peak discomfort set in with no escape visible.
“But you know how everything happens for a reason? I was able to clean myself up and every day is a struggle but - you know - one day at a time, right? And now my son is in a pretty safe school and we’ve got our own apartment out by the interstate”.
Congratulations? I thought.
I composed myself and as I started to respond with something earnest, she elbowed me in the ribs and got up to leave, saying: “hey - lighten up - I’m just messing with you. I’m a pension fund advisor from Chicago and I’m here to meet with a few REIT management teams”.
“Sympathy? Not for me. No mercy for a criminal freak in Las Vegas. This place is like the Army: the shark ethic prevails - eat the wounded. In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas