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January 6, 2009 5:52 PM

CES: The Vegas economy through the eyes of a cab driver

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

LAS VEGAS -- Lim Seng, 45, has been driving a cab in this city for 15 years. When he picked me up at the airport today, I peppered him with questions about the International Consumer Electronics Show ("everything is smaller than usual") to his outlook on the Vegas economy (not so good).

Seng said CES -- "the most busy convention" -- is a welcome sign in Las Vegas each year because it typically marks the beginning of a high season of tourism business. It starts with the annual convention, which this year is expected to draw 130,000 people -- down from past levels -- and continues through the late winter and spring as betters flock to casinos for major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA basketball tournaments.

Business for a cab driver is typically good into the summer, Seng says, and then it slows down as the school year begins and people turn their minds and their wallets to the holidays. "So they don't like to come to Vegas and blow the money away," he says.

He bides his budget accordingly, saving as much as he can from January through August and scraping by in the fall.

But as is well known, Vegas is hurting. Seng doesn't expect the city to see its usual tally of nearly 40 million visitors this year.

And the downturn looks worse than any other he's been through here so far. It's the double-whammy of tourism drying up and the bursting residential real estate bubble, which hurt this community a lot.

"It feels different," Seng says of the current downturn. "You can go around neighborhoods in Las Vegas. Foreclosed houses. Four or five in one block."

He knows cab drivers working the night shift in November and December who weren't even making minimum wage. Casino workers are having their shifts curtailed from eight hours to six, Seng says. He himself has seen his wait time between fares stretch from 15 minutes to an hour and a half.

"It's really hard," Seng says.

But as I look out the window at the cranes standing over yet another towering development along the Vegas strip, Seng seems to sense my question. "Even in an economy like this, I still don't get it. You see all the construction is still going on," he says.

Vegas is clearly betting on the return of better days.

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