Stark backdrop as President prepares to debate

Stark backdrop as President prepares to debate
Henderson, Nevada:  Las Vegas might seem the last place a presidential candidate would choose to spend three days of sober, nose-to-the-grindstone debate preparation. But since Sunday, President Obama has been encamped 17 miles from the neon excess of the Strip, in a palm-fringed, financially battered lakeside resort that serves as a vivid reminder of the economic distress that still threatens his hopes for re-election.

Known as Lake Las Vegas, the 3,600-acre gated complex - which includes three golf courses, a man-made lake, a casino and two hotels, plus a replica of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence - has the disused air of a paradise lost. Few people here seem to notice Mr. Obama's presence, but that is partly because there are so few people around.

The complex has been in and out of bankruptcy multiple times, many of the Spanish-style houses in the residential cul-de-sacs are empty or in foreclosure, and two of the three golf courses are abandoned, their putting greens scorched to a dingy brown. A Ritz-Carlton hotel closed in May 2010 because of the gasping economy.

In its dizzying boom and bust, Lake Las Vegas epitomizes the damage done to Nevada, a state hit harder than almost any other by the housing collapse and one that Mitt Romney is fiercely contesting. Mr. Romney, who was already in Denver ahead of the debate, is sure to fault Mr. Obama, both for his housing policies and the lackluster recovery, when they face off on Wednesday.

Critics here say that Mr. Obama's policies, which emphasized limited steps to modify loans rather than a broad bailout of homeowners, did little to cushion people from a crash that saddled tens of thousands with houses worth far less than their mortgages.

"They did some things to help, but my understanding is that only about 3 to 4 percent of the homeowners who were underwater here in Las Vegas were able to take advantage of any programs," said Stephen P. A. Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

And yet, local real estate agents say there are glimmers of hope that the worst is over for Lake Las Vegas. A billionaire hedge fund investor, John Paulson, recently bought 530 acres of land on the north shore of the lake, which he plans to develop for housing. Investors, many of them from overseas, are beginning to buy houses, which can be picked up for a fraction of what they cost at the peak of the housing bubble.

"For a while there, people were calling it a ghost town," said Marcy Farris, a real estate broker in Henderson. "But we're snapping back a bit."

Those seeds of hope amid a landscape of ruin may help explain why Mr. Obama has a decent chance to win Nevada, despite its 12.1 percent unemployment rate, the worst in the United States. The jobless rate has fallen slightly since last year, housing prices have started to rise, and residential construction has slowly picked up.

At the offices of Windermere Real Estate on the brick-lined shopping street of Lake Las Vegas, "half the agents want to give Obama another term, and half are for Romney - just like our entire country," said Robyn Yates, the broker and owner. She added, "I'm a Republican, and I really hope Mitt Romney gets it."

Polls show Mr. Obama with a lead of about 5 percentage points in Nevada. He has made eight trips here this year, and his choice of Las Vegas for debate preparation was hardly accidental. His aides say he is keenly aware of the human cost of the foreclosed homes that line the routes of his motorcade.

"This is one of the states that every time he comes back here, he's reminded he wants to continue find ways to help the housing market improve," said the campaign's press secretary, Jen Psaki. "It is something he is impacted by deeply wherever he goes, whether it is conversations, reports, or reading the Nevada newspapers in the morning."

Ms. Psaki said she had not talked to the president about the peculiar woes of Lake Las Vegas. In any event, Mr. Obama has had little chance to check out the desiccated golf courses. He spends most of his time in drills with his aides, consultants, and Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and former presidential contender who is standing in for Mr. Romney in mock debate sessions.

During a brief outing Monday to deliver pizzas to a campaign field office in Henderson, Mr. Obama sounded like a man who had just been released from house arrest. "Basically, they're keeping me indoors all the time," the president joked to the 20 volunteers. "It's a drag. They're making me do my homework."

White House officials declined to say why they chose the resort, beyond Ms. Psaki's observation that "it's a place where there's ample space and nice peace and quiet." Security concerns likely played a part: Mr. Obama is staying at the Westin Lake Las Vegas, a secluded hotel reached by a single road. He stayed here on his last visit, though in previous trips to Las Vegas, he has stayed at Caesars Palace.

Mr. Obama has had a chilly relationship with the gambling industry since 2009 when he warned executives at companies that were receiving federal bailout funds, "You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime." Two of the biggest casino owners, Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn, back Mr. Romney.

But at Lake Las Vegas, where the singer Celine Dion owns a house, the talk is of a renaissance. Ms. Farris, the broker, has listed a 2,000-square-foot stucco house, which had been in foreclosure for years and was stripped clean by vandals. "It was literally missing everything,"she said.

In 2009, she said, an investor bought the house for $129,900 in cash and fixed it up. It is now on the market for $250,000.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: October 03, 2012 17:15 IST

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