In 2013, the City of North Las Vegas was teetering on the brink of financial, social, and political collapse. The Great Recession had left this medium-sized city of 250,000 with more than $152 million in debt, the highest rate of home foreclosures in the nation, and the state of Nevada poised to take over the city and divide the municipality among its neighbors.
One person decided he would not let that happen. And today, North Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing and most successful cities in America. It is an urban transformation made possible by courageous leadership, hard work, and a technology transformation that is creating an infrastructure designed for growth and opportunity.
John Lee, the mayor of North Las Vegas, has always been passionate about his city. It is here he met Marilyn, his wife of 40 years, and raised his seven children. It is where he went into the construction trades after graduating high school, quickly rising from digging ditches as a day laborer to owning and operating a series of successful contracting and remodeling businesses. These experiences gave Lee a unique insight into the inner workings of a city’s services and operations.
But for Lee, running successful businesses wasn’t enough. “I wanted to do something else with my life that brings value to me,” he says. “People should get involved in their communities, and that’s what I chose to do.” Beginning in 1996, he represented North Las Vegas in the Nevada State legislature, first as a State Assemblyman and then for 8 years as a Nevada State Senator. While serving as State Senator, Lee was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. It was a diagnosis that would profoundly impact his attitude toward life, and reaffirm his commitment to a career in public service.
“Most cities will say, ‘We want to innovate. We want to move forward. We want to be the best at something.’ But then they look to the city next door and they say, ‘But you go first!’ I think city leadership should make decisions not based upon what everybody else thinks, but do the things they think they need to do for their city.”
— Mayor John Lee, City of North Las Vegas
While Lee was battling for his life, the city he cherished was in a life-and-death struggle of its own. When the news of Nevada’s plans to take over and decertify the city reached Lee, he had an immediate reaction. “I decided I would ask my wife if I could run for mayor. I thought I had the experience, a lot of opportunities no one else in North Las Vegas had,” he says. “Can you imagine letting your Boy Scout troop go under? Your Girl Scout troop, your church, your school? I couldn’t let North Las Vegas fail.” In April 2013, Lee won the election with 53.4 percent of the vote.
Lee entered office with a vision focused on building North Las Vegas for the long term. “I boldly said, ’The recession’s over. We’re going to work. We’re not laying off anybody else.” From day one, he preached that rather than a city in irreversible decline, North Las Vegas is a city of virtually unlimited opportunity, with nearly 50 square miles—almost half the city’s territory—still undeveloped and ready to be used for building a new future of prosperity for all. “My goal is to diversify the economy,” Lee says. “Instead of gaming, tourism, and hospitality, I aim to get manufacturing, industry, and a lot of other opportunities for our residents.” And so he brought in a like-minded team of smart, creative individuals committed to driving the city’s reinvention as the best new place to do business.
Lee is not afraid to delegate. “I don’t run this city like a traditional mayor,” he says. “I run this like a business. I bring people in, smarter people that are more creative at solving problems.” He is fond of saying, “60 percent of the time I know I’m 100 percent right, but I need smarter people for that other 40 percent.”
Lee is relentless in promoting North Las Vegas as a great city to do business. His vision drives what Lee calls a “business-friendly organizational structure” that promises “customer service as our number one priority” to businesses considering a move to North Las Vegas.
To help North Las Vegas deliver on that promise, Lee is leading a technology transformation of the city’s infrastructure, aimed at enabling the city to cut bureaucratic red tape and slash costs while simultaneously improving city services and efficiencies. The result has led to an influx of new business investment and residential housing worth billions to the city’s economy, and more than 14 million square feet of new commercial and industrial space in the planning stage or already under construction.
In April 2017, Lee was re-elected to a second four-year term as mayor of North Las Vegas with more than 80 percent of the vote.
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Key to the resurgence of North Las Vegas is the role of technology in allowing the city to do far more with far less. North Las Vegas is continuing to virtualize the city’s infrastructure, beginning with its servers and now moving into its networking with VMware NSX® and storage with VMware vSAN™.
Prior to virtualizing its infrastructure, the city struggled to meet the demands of its 13 city departments and the citizens they collectively serve. “Before Mayor Lee started, we had a lot of technical issues,” says Adam Cohen, the IT manager responsible for the city’s infrastructure. “Our technology was literally falling apart.” Costly and difficult to service, the city’s servers were constantly breaking down to the detriment of vital city services like the police and fire departments they were dedicated to support. Field operations by these departments and other city agencies were compromised as a result.
Under Mayor Lee’s leadership, the city moved quickly to implement the technology infrastructure that would allow it to deliver on its promises to be a business-friendly city in every way. The city replaced its failing systems and virtualized its server infrastructure. The result led to a huge, and almost immediate improvement in city services. The new server infrastructure made the city’s services far more agile and responsive. “We could just spin up whatever the city departments were requesting in a short amount of time,” says Cohen.
VMware was instrumental in helping North Las Vegas make this transition. “VMware has been a critical partner to us,” Cohen says. “They’re not just selling their products to us, they are working hand in hand on these projects to make sure that we’re successful.”
The city is now an urban and regional leader in implementing VMware technologies. In addition to NSX and vSAN, technologies the city is using today include VMware ESXi™, VMware Horizon® View™, and VMware vRealize® Log Insight™. “I’m happy to say that they’ve been very beneficial to our city,” says Cohen of the city’s work with VMware. “Our vision is to virtualize just about everything we can.” And ultimately, he says, “I could see us going to the cloud.”
All of the city’s software applications, including cloud-based services and applications, now run over the VMware virtualized infrastructure. These apps make it possible to deliver more efficient services, reduce city costs, and react more responsively to the needs of its city agencies and citizens. Among the immediate benefits is how new applications allow the city to accelerate the approval process for new construction and business permits from weeks or months to just days or hours.
The city is constantly adding new apps that take advantage of the capabilities the VMware infrastructure allows. These capabilities include 3D mapping of crime scenes and fingerprint identification by police officers in the field, and “smart” utility metering of its vital water and sewage services that significantly enhances water conservation while reducing costs for customers. The virtualized infrastructure also supports the city’s water treatment plant and its state-of-the-art Internet of Things (IoT) automated monitoring system.
Moving to the VMware virtualized infrastructure also means that as North Las Vegas continues its revival, it does not have to add more personnel than it needs or can afford to the public payroll, even though the services themselves continue to improve and expand to meet growing demand.
This same VMware virtualized infrastructure is supporting the city’s ambitious growth and development plans as it builds out the 50 square miles currently undeveloped within the city’s geographic boundaries. “We’ve accomplished an amazing transformation with VMware,” Cohen says. “It’s advanced us by years over what we previously had. More importantly,” he adds, “it’s helped us move the city ahead and accomplish its own vision.”
In an emerging business world in which every business needs to be a technology business in order to thrive and be successful, North Las Vegas, almost uniquely for cities of its size, is offering the technology infrastructure that allows businesses to do just that. And companies are responding. High-profile businesses in the high-paying technology sector are choosing North Las Vegas over many other possible cities to locate their newer operations. And, as Mayor Lee says, “This is really only just the beginning.”
Central to the comeback of North Las Vegas is the crucial role of the city’s library system to continuing education and workforce development. A major part of paying off Mayor Lee’s pitch to businesses looking to North Las Vegas as a possible location is the promise that the city will have the quality workforce to staff these organizations. As Forrest Lewis, the city’s library director, says, “The library is really focused on making sure that when these businesses come, and they’re coming in great number, that our residents already living here and supporting North Las Vegas have the proper training, certification, and direction to step into those jobs and stay as a benefit to North Las Vegas.”
To Lewis, the role of the library in a community’s life hasn’t really changed. It has always been involved in providing “educational assistance,” but the capabilities to extend that assistance have dramatically expanded thanks to the new VMware desktop virtualization technology. It is revolutionizing the ability of the library to deliver on its educational and informational training, as well as other mission critical services.
“People don’t really realize that there’s a large portion of the population that does not have a computer at home, that does not have high-speed internet. So, the library really is their resource, not only for applying to jobs and homework assistance, but to reach the outside world.”
— Forrest Lewis, Library Director, City of North Las Vegas
Water is the most precious resource in the Southern Nevada desert. As Randy DeVaul, the director of utilities for North Las Vegas, explains it, “We get 4.4 inches of water a year. We depend on the watershed and the mountains up in the Sierra Nevadas to melt snow and fill Lake Mead.” It is a dependency that is also increasingly precarious as the region is suffering through a 16-year drought. Lake Mead’s water level has dropped more than 140 feet during that time period.
The city’s state-of-the-art water treatment plant is crucial to conserving and ensuring the citizens and businesses of North Las Vegas an adequate supply of fresh water for all their needs. The plant enables the city to more than meet its conservation goals by allowing it to return 40 percent of all the water it uses to Lake Mead. As a result, the city is actually using only 60 percent of its annual allocation, and leads the entire Southern Nevada region in water conservation.
The water treatment plant’s operations are completely automated. Under Mayor Lee’s leadership, the plant implemented the Security Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system in March 2017. SCADA is an IoT-based system that is run over the city’s VMware virtualized infrastructure.
SCADA allows the city to precisely monitor and regulate the flow of water throughout the plant at every phase of that flow—from the intake from the customers of the North Las Vegas Water District to its eventual return to Lake Mead. Its automated operations enable SCADA to instantly respond to virtually any issue in real time, vastly improving efficiency of operations and response to any potential loss of water to the system.
The plant requires very little traditional utility management. This has allowed the city to reduce costs and redirect staff. Water department staff continue to be re-trained to operate what is now a technology business operating a water utility. “Before SCADA, everything was done manually,” DeVaul says. “You had to turn valves by yourself. You had to divert flows by putting in sluice gates. With SCADA, that is all done automatically.”
SCADA, and the city’s virtualized infrastructure, make the water treatment system very easy to scale and therefore central to the expansion and development plans of North Las Vegas. The city is currently planning and installing a major expansion of its utility infrastructure to support its development and population goals.
Mayor Lee likes to talk about how a city like North Las Vegas is composed of “what you can see above ground, and what you cannot see” below. The quality of this unseen infrastructure is what allows a city to grow, prosper, and provide new opportunities for its citizens. The IoT technologies that help power the water system are, along with the city’s virtualized technology infrastructure, as much a part of this unseen infrastructure as the water, gas, and other utility pipes and physical infrastructure below the surface.
It is this unseen, parallel development, along with virtualized and physical architecture,that is helping to power the renaissance of the City of North Las Vegas. It is, as Mayor Lee says, “what makes North Las Vegas a $50 billion enterprise.”
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, more than 54 percent of the world’s estimated total population of 7.6 billion people live in urban areas. That figure is expected to rise to more than 66 percent by mid-century, and grow even higher as the global population nearly doubles by 2100. How cities will manage this continuing growth, continue to provide services, and remain economically viable and sustainable is, as John Wilmoth, the director of the UN organization’s population division states, “one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century.”
Against that background, it is possible to see in the urban renaissance of North Las Vegas, and in particular, its leveraging of technology to support that renewal, a blueprint for urban transformation with broad implication for cities now and in the decades to come.
North Las Vegas is using advanced technology to create an infrastructure that can grow and scale along with the city’s own population growth and success. The city demonstrates how a virtualized infrastructure is like an invisible fabric that supports and unifies a wide array of urban services necessary for a viable city on one easily managed and cost-effective platform: services such as water, energy, transportation, housing, waste management, health, and safety.
As North Las Vegas demonstrates, the value of advanced technology to urban sustainability also extends to the equally vital task of human development. Virtualization is enabling a significant expansion of educational and workforce training services in both the city’s schools and libraries. As urban areas continue to grow in population— the UN estimates that the amount of megacities worldwide (cities with populations of more than 10 million) will nearly double to 41 by 2030—leveraging the cost savings, scalability, and efficiencies of virtualization will take on even greater importance. Virtualization and cloud-based services offer urban planners the human development infrastructure they need to support strategies that effectively educate, train, and provide meaningful jobs for these geographically-concentrated populations.
But, as the experience of North Las Vegas also teaches, urban transformation begins with leadership. There are many cities in the United States and worldwide that are struggling with the same problems North Las Vegas had. Similar to North Las Vegas a few years ago, many cities are dealing with the consequences of relying on a single business or industry for their economic health. The revival of North Las Vegas began with Mayor Lee’s decision to diversify the city’s economy and wean it away from its traditional reliance on tourism. In turn, that decision led to the city’s doubling down on a technology transformation that would ensure it could provide the city services to support a diversified economy and an educated citizenry.
These decisions required bold, courageous leadership. North Las Vegas shows that with that kind of leadership, any city can transform itself and find the means to thrive again. For the economically-challenged cities in America’s heartland and the old industrial cities of the Midwestern “Rust Belt,” North Las Vegas offers more than just a way forward. It offers new hope for the generations of people who call these cities home, today, and in the years to come.