WHY WOULD a trade association for touring and performing artists give its top annual award to a local library system official? To understand, it helps to know a couple things: First, the official in question — Matt McNally, Las Vegas-Clark County Library District’s director of community engagement — has an extensive theater background, including a degree in stage management and a stint with Jubilee! Second, this isn’t your grandfather’s library. At LVCCLD, you’ll find stacks and reading nooks, sure, but also live performances and interactive exhibits. And behind all that is a staff thinking up new, better ways to serve the community, perhaps best illustrated by their reaction to the COVID-19 shutdown.
The Western Arts Association, a consortium of agents, artists, and presenters in the arts, gave you its annual Leadership Award. Why are you even on their radar?
Well, we have six performing arts centers that are actually attached to our libraries. We also have 15 fine art galleries and 21 different meeting rooms that the library district programs for the public. Many of those programs are free of charge. And we get the opportunity to go meet with artists and agents, and find cool, creative things that maybe aren't found here in our local community. And we get to bring those to Las Vegas and make them available for the public.
In the award announcement, one WAA member described you as being “ahead of the curve with plans in place, weeks before we actually shut down” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you foresee what was coming?
We started seeing reports that were coming out of China and then later Italy in the end of February, beginning of March of 2020. Watching different news reports and staying abreast of what was happening around the world and thinking about how that might impact our business — (that) was one of the critical strategies for us getting ahead of the curve. Recognizing that, the day COVID-19 was announced as a pandemic, we already had a pandemic response team in place. And we were meeting the very next day to talk about how we as an organization would function moving forward. I was tasked with leading a small subcommittee and developing a 90-day mitigation plan.
That 90-day mitigation plan included contingencies for reduced services. What did that entail? The library seems like a place that relies on in-person contact. Am I wrong about that?
Well, libraries have actually branched out in lots of different ways now. Not only do we have all our in-person services, but we also connect with customers in digital ways using our databases and electronic resources. But at the time, specifically focusing on the arts, that's one of the challenging things that the pandemic brought, that the arts community was heavily affected. A lot of arts are centered around people gathering. So, the fact that there was this hesitancy now about social gathering, that was a major disturbance in our plan moving forward.
Describe the specifics of that plan.
Before the world shutting down, we were out ahead three or four days, looking at some 4,000 events within 90 days that were going to be impacted. And so, this subcommittee put together an analysis that I was able to bring before our Board of Trustees. Looking around the room, there were a lot of jaws that just dropped open. They couldn't believe that we were going to be taking this strategy of reducing service for 4,000 events. And then it was days later when the world shut down and we went into lockdown.
March 17, in Nevada. I remember it well. What did you do?
So, unfortunately, we had to cancel those performing arts services. Over a matter of two or three days, our staff got a jumpstart on personally contacting every single partner, every single rental user group, and every contracted person that was scheduled to perform at the Library District. That was an effort of mine to say — there was a lot of uncertainty at that time, and people didn't realize what (we know in) hindsight — having that personal conversation with everyone and letting them know what our intentions were … talking about how we would need to cancel service over the 90 days, but that we would be looking to retain all of the contracts that were in place and reschedule them to a later date.
How many of those 4,000 events got rescheduled?
Many of them. We were able to open as early as June of 2020. I mean, 99 percent of arts organizations were still closed at that point; 99 percent of libraries were still closed at that point. And because we were able to use those 90 days to build new operation plans and talk about mitigation efforts and how to safely reopen and support local artists and our community with access to information, we were able to recover much, much faster than other agencies in the western United States. And I think that's why Western Arts Alliance wanted to recognize the Library District and me with this award.
You worked on the Aladdin spectacular at Disneyland as well as Jubilee! at Bally's. What did those experiences teach you about bringing arts to a community?
It was really about the scale of production and the value that you can bring audience members who participate in coming to see the show. When you're managing a cast and crew of 160 on a nightly basis at Jubilee! it allows you to walk into an environment with great staff, (such as) in the Library District, and have that experience of being able to manage large numbers of people and large scale of events. Disney is all about their customer service, right? And so, I think having learned that earlier in my career, I'm able to work with our staff to set certain expectations, to say when, as a customer, you come to the Library District, this is how we want our customer to feel.
It sounds like quite an evolution from the traditional idea of a library — that quiet place with dour librarians helping you find books.
The library will always be about books. It's very easy for us to manage that transactional type of business. But where libraries have transitioned to is experiential learning and, come to the library for an experience, and come see a great ballet or a theater production or a fine art gallery, come and learn a new language or work in one of our maker space studios and learn how to DJ or learn how to podcast. Maybe you're renewing a passport at the library, or perhaps you're even engaging with our library in the digital world, by logging on to our databases from home and getting homework help or tutoring assistance. So, while the core essence of libraries will always be about books and information, libraries have to evolve in order to remain relevant, and it's one of the reasons why our library district is so cutting edge, is because we're evolving faster than other libraries across the nation.
What was a specific program you started in response to COVID-19?
We were still in the pandemic in June of 2020, but our community really needed more services. CCSD was still doing lots of distance learning, and we have these big facilities where can very easily socially distance people, and we have WiFi, and why not work with the City of Las Vegas to create the Vegas Strong Academy? We recognized that maybe the arts aren't as important right now, because the educational need in our community is so big, so we could repurpose that venue and turn it into a Distance Learning Center for students, so that they could have a place where parents could drop their kids off, they would be checked in, and there would be some type of an adult oversight over the room throughout the day, and kids could participate in distance learning. And then at the end of the day, parents could pick them up, allowing our adults to get back into the workforce.
Some of the library’s meeting rooms and venues were also used as COVID-19 testing sites, weren’t they?
Yes … To date, we've administered over, I think, 53,000 tests in partnership with Southern Nevada Health District and Curative to help meet our community's needs.
What do you hope the public learned from the pandemic about the library?
I remember being at home and conversing with family the way most everyone did — just thinking, "Gosh, if I have to participate in one more Zoom call ... I might lose it," right? (I hope people) remember that the library was there and open for them, because people, by nature, I think, are social beings. And the library provides that third place, other than home and work, for people to be social. So, come to the library, find an experience, find something that interests you, and remember that the library has something for everyone.
You are a former national Monopoly champion and world-class competitor. Do you still play, and is the secret to winning really owning Park Place and Boardwalk?
I still play but tournaments are few and far between. National championships usually occur every four to six years. Park Place and Boardwalk are great properties to own, but in your average home game, they’re not the best. The orange properties of St. James Place, Tennessee Avenue, and New York Avenue provide the best colored-monopoly on the board.
IT WAS SOMEWHERE between the octopus tostada at Bajamar Seafood & Tacos and the smoked brisket and Filipino spring rolls at Mountain West Eatery where I realized, this is pretty good. And I wasn’t thinking of the food we had been gorging on for the past hour. It was the idea of a cheap rideshare alternative. Was it time to ditch Uber and Lyft and jump on the RTC-OnDemand bandwagon? I wondered as I reached for a wedge of a Sharkey’s quesadilla. Perhaps RTC-OnDemand, the Regional Transportation Commission’s bus rideshare service that quietly launched last year, is an idea whose time has come.
Although currently limited to the southwest valley and West Henderson, the idea of a convenient pickup and $2 fare is quite intriguing. The opportunity to travel from the far end of Mountains Edge to the M Resort for less than a cup of coffee (when traditional rideshares charge north of $20) seems ideal. It’s what the RTC believes, anyway. Now, it’s about getting the word out.
“A lot of people don’t realize what OnDemand is,” says RTC Deputy CEO Francis Julien while standing outside El Luchador Mexican Kitchen. “This is a vehicle, just like an Uber or a Lyft, that will pick you up at your doorstep and take you where you want to go.”
The price alone is attractive. It’s common knowledge that running a city transit system is not a moneymaker — it’s a public service. So the goal here is to cast aside any stigmas people associate with using public transportation and create an experience that’s clean, enjoyable, reliable and easy to use. In an effort to promote the relatively new service, the RTC took a few journalists on a foodie tour of the southwest May 3, stopping at five partner restaurants to explain how the program works.
It was a lot to digest. Not only did each restaurant serve massive platters of food (they all offer discounts and freebies to RTC-OnDemand riders), but Julien and other RTC officials dished about all the details of the pilot program.
So how exactly does it work — and can it really compete with traditional rideshare services? RTC-OnDemand was launched roughly eight months ago as a way to provide transportation in a 32-square-mile area where bus routes were virtually nonexistent. “We called it a transit desert in the desert,” Julien explains. “There was no service at all.” But instead of adding big, bulky buses and fixed lines with schedules that may not meet the needs of the community, the RTC took an innovative approach that satisfies federal requirements for paratransit passengers and is flexible for other riders.
“We knew there was a demand to have a transit network in this region, so we thought, let’s expand the system, but how can we do it in a much more convenient, modern way that is more cost effective as well?” Julien says. “The idea was to create a universal model where we could cater to the paratransit passenger, regular bus riders and students all under one umbrella. We were basically the first (in the nation) to combine all the services, and now we’re seeing other transit agencies across the country mimicking what we’re doing. On a large scale, we changed the model, and other cities are now looking at duplicating it.” Julien adds that OnDemand actually saves the RTC money, because this more nimble, targeted rideshare service replaces the typical fixed-route bus and paratransit combo.
Like Uber and Lyft, RTC-On Demand uses the same technology and a dedicated app to allow users to access rides when they need to, instead of planning around a bus schedule. Passengers can be picked up right at their doorstep and taken anywhere in the zone, whether it’s a restaurant, grocery store, or a doctor’s office. They can even book a trip to a bus stop and connect to fixed routes outside the OnDemand area. Rides can be scheduled for the same day or up to seven days in advance. Julien says the average response time, from request to pickup, averages 19 minutes, and once a ride is booked, the arrival time for the bus can be tracked. The buses, which run daily from 4 a.m. to 1:45 a.m., are each equipped with free Wi-Fi and bike racks, and are ADA-accessible to accommodate wheelchair passengers.
I’m no stranger to public transportation. If I’m not walking, it’s my preferred method of travel when visiting other cities, and instead of bugging friends, I use the RTC and the South Strip park-and-ride to go to the airport. So my main questions with OnDemand had to do with time: How long am I going to have to wait for a ride and then, once I’m onboard, how many stops and minutes will it take to reach my destination?
But I was assured that even though RTC-OnDemand is a shared ride with vehicles seating up to 12 passengers, the average time onboard is about 15 minutes. How do they manage this? This is because the agency is able to track demand in real time, and can have up to 14 buses scattered throughout the service area as needed. Between bites at El Luchador and Locale, Julien explained how the RTC teamed up with local businesses to help promote the service and offer discounts to OnDemand passengers — everything from a free margarita with food purchase at El Luchador to a complimentary glass of house wine at Locale or $20 off an oil change at Jiffy Lube.
The service is racking up riders, according to Julien, who says they just passed 10,000 customers, and are already halfway to their goal and considering expansion to other underserved areas of the valley. “Usually in transit, you need to wait three years to see results, but we are already seeing really nice growth in the system,” Julien says before reaching for a plate of nachos. “Customers love the service. It’s super cool to see the app working.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t watch football. I don’t really get the appeal of watching 22 300-pound mutants slam into each other after 30 minutes of commercials. Regardless, there I was out in the Mojave sun, walking along Las Vegas Boulevard, flanked by an army of pirates and cheeseheads, all while Jay-Z serenaded us from the speakers. As I shuffled from autograph-signings to concert venues, I couldn’t help but realize that all of the things I was witnessing — from the frantic waitresses struggling to keep up with orders, to the insanely long lines, to the group of tipsy frat boys who asked sarcastically if I needed sunscreen — wasn’t normal. After two years of COVID-19, I’d grown accustomed to Las Vegas A.D. — a hobbled and unremarkable city, a shell of its former self. It only took the NFL Draft, an event usually known for being milquetoast and uninspiring, to breathe life into this city. It seems as if Las Vegas rose from the ashes of COVID and reinvented itself: Vegas was officially a sports town.
For decades, professional sports have tried and failed to make their home in the valley. 1994 saw the season-long crash and burn of the Las Vegas Posse, the Canadian Football League’s vain attempt to expand into the U.S. market. Years later in 2001, the Las Vegas Outlaws, an arena football league, also folded after one season. It didn’t help that the 2007 NBA All-Star Game was known by most basketball fans as an abject failure, an event marred by gun violence and reportedly more than 400 arrests. Unfortunately for Las Vegas, these early failures solidified in people’s minds the idea that this city could never be home to a prestigious sports franchise. I'm sure you've heard the comments: “Las Vegas doesn’t have loyal fans.” “There’s no sports culture in Vegas.” And my favorite, “How can you expect athletes to perform when they’re surrounded by strippers and alcohol?!”
In hindsight, it's easy to see why sports failed in Las Vegas. It wasn’t the fact that we were a city of transplants, lacked loyal fans, or because we loved to party. Nope, not even close. The real reason sports never took off is that we half-assed it. What most franchises failed to realize early on was that we were a city of refined consumers — why would anyone drive 30 minutes to watch Canadian football at Sam Boyd when you could watch Evander Holyfield fight at Caesars Palace? Having the rare distinction of being the Entertainment Capital of the World made us spoiled for choice and hard to impress. If pro sports were ever going to take off in Las Vegas, it would need to live up to our expectations and be worthy of our reputation.
Fast forward to 2017, and the Vegas Golden Knights and their motley crew of NHL journeymen did what many pundits thought was impossible. Overcoming 500-1 odds, the Knights marauded their way to the Stanley cup finals. Almost overnight, soccer moms, bus drivers, and lawyers were converted to hockey fans. My theory was proven correct: If you win, they will come. It’s no surprise that after that incredible 2017 season, investors finally opened their eyes to the prospect of bringing a major league team to Vegas. They had to go all in this time — no more second-rate sports franchises. It was time to do it in a way that respected our name.
Nearly two years after the event was originally canceled, the NFL pulled out all the stops — an NFL Red Carpet on the Bellagio fountains, a football-themed amusement park at the Linq promenade, after-parties at Drai’s, The Palms, and numerous other destinations across town. If you happened to have a layover in Vegas over the weekend, you would’ve thought it was the Super Bowl, which, in a way, is a testament to the lengths the NFL has gone to transform the draft, which had long been a television snoozefest and entertainment afterthought, into a spectacle in its own right. Like the city itself, the NFL took the pandemic as a reason to shift course — transforming its image from hidebound and conservative to a new, brash, and exciting persona.
Just take it from Zach Gelb, the host of CBS Sports Radio’s Zach Gelb Show. “I've been to Vegas before,” he said on the program recently. “It's always a great time when you come to Vegas. But when the NFL came here for the draft, it was just unbelievable. Just look how many people you have in so many different types of jerseys. This year was an absolute home run.”