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Jennifer Robison

Obama talks "love" to Vegas business group

22 February 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Don't let the bitter divides fool you.

Sure, local business owners disagree with President Barack Obama on a number of issues, from making union-organizing easier to taxing companies' carbon emissions. But everybody got along Friday when Obama stopped by CityCenter to address a group of 600 that consisted mostly of members of area chambers of commerce.

The executives and entrepreneurs who attended the speech said they came for the rare chance to see the president in person. They also hoped for evidence that Obama grasps the economic turmoil roiling Las Vegas.

"I wanted the opportunity to hear our president speak to our business community, and I'd like to hear that he's aware of what's going on in Las Vegas, that he understands the level of challenges we have in this community," said Bart Jones, co-owner and chief financial officer of Merlin Contracting and Developing in Las Vegas. "I'd like to hear that he's sensitive to those conditions, and that he has a system to resolve some of our problems."

The crowd gave Obama a standing ovation and interrupted his 30-minute speech with applause half a dozen times. He earned his biggest response when he said he "loves" Las Vegas -- a reference to past remarks that some local leaders said discouraged visitation to the city. He also won a positive reaction when he mentioned $100 million in federal assistance for Nevada homeowners.

"I certainly was hoping he'd say something about the comments he made (about not visiting Las Vegas), and he didn't shy away from it," said Michael Yackira, president and chief executive officer of local power utility NV Energy. "But the announcement today about the protection of homeowners is so important to us in Nevada. I think he hit every point, and it was just exciting to be here and watch him."

Still, the receptive atmosphere couldn't paper over some big philosophical differences.

Fafie Moore, president of Realty Executives of Nevada and former chairwoman of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said she's concerned about the fate of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, some of which the Obama administration has said it will let expire in 2011. Most companies today function on small or nonexistent profit margins, Moore said, and any boost in taxes could prove fatal for some operations.

"Small businesses in particular are so fragile that increased taxes and new regulations for insurance would make it very difficult for an entrepreneur to build a business," she said. "That is a concern, because small businesses will be the businesses that start the job-growth cycle."

Steve Hill, a local executive with concrete maker CalPortland and former chairman of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, called for balance in the actions government takes to address the recession. Some of the federal government's measures help the economy, but other policies hamper it, he said.

"I think the focus on jobs is important, but part of the focus should also be on smaller government, to some extent," Hill said. "We've been concerned about the (union-organizing) Employee Free Choice Act, health-care reform and carbon cap-and-trade legislation that would add expenses in a time when businesses are in no position to absorb more costs. Every decision we make needs to be focused on how we create more jobs."

But Hill said after Obama's speech that the president's comments allayed some of his concerns. Obama noted that there's only so much the government can or should do to foster a turnaround, and he added that the "true engine" of American job creation isn't Congress or the White House, but small-business startups.

Said Hill: "His understanding of the difficulties Las Vegas is experiencing was there, and I think this trip helps him."