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Small Changes on a Massive Scale

Alumna Cindy Ortega has an unlikely background for someone who just helped open a multibillion dollar resort dedicated to the massaging and feeding of tourists. And at first blush, it seems more unlikely still that her specific job is making such a behemoth environmentally "small."
People  |  Apr 12, 2010  |  By Brendan Buhler
Cindy Ortega, '91 BS Hotel Administration (Geri Kodey/UNLV Photo Services)

Cindy Ortega, '91 BS Hotel Administration, grew up riding on her parents' Utah cattle ranch, not too far from the eastern edge of Great Basin National Park. Grade school was in a two-room schoolhouse. High school required catching a bus to the next town over. She lived with a widow during the week and went home on the weekends. Their wealth was in their land and rarely in their wallets, she remembers. "Just like all ranchers and farmers, you're sitting on a gold mine but you're very poor."

It's an unlikely background for someone who just helped open CityCenter, a multibillion dollar resort dedicated to the massaging and feeding of tourists and gamblers. And at first blush, it seems more unlikely still that Ortega's specific job is making such a place environmentally friendly.

She doesn't see it that way. She says growing up the way she did on a ranch in the desert made her very aware that the land's resources are finite and good stewardship is required.

Stepping Lightly

Thanks to Ortega, the project received the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification, making CityCenter the highest rated green development in Las Vegas and one of the largest sustainable developments in the world. Ortega, to use a term popular in environmental speak, gave CityCenter a small footprint.

But when you're talking about an $8.5 billion, 67-acre casino, resort, condo, and shopping mall development, shrinking its environmental footprint is like breeding a nondestructive Godzilla. The creature still has to be awe-inspiring - massive size and domination of a skyline. And its hunger for a lot of energy must be fed. So the task then is to mitigate the damage the mighty beast causes.

The very scale of CityCenter means that even small percentages turn into big savings.

It means that using water-saving technology like low-flow shower heads inside and carefully watered desert plants outside saves 50 million gallons of water a year. Using energy-efficient lighting and high-performance glass, as well as letting more sunlight into the building, saves as much electricity as 8,800 households use in a year. Recycling and reusing practices kept 260,000 tons of construction waste out of our landfills.

There are two other ways of looking at CityCenter that make its size an actual environmental advantage. Most green buildings are like throwing a pebble into a pond and looking for ripples of change. Ortega says CityCenter is like hurling a boulder into a lake. You see waves.

Directly, its sheer size allowed MGM Mirage to demand different, more environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques. For instance, there's fiberboard, which you may know as the not-quite-wood cabinets in your own kitchens and bathrooms. Almost all fiberboard is made using urea-formaldehyde glues, which are toxic and can evaporate into the air. CityCenter's size meant that it was able to pressure manufacturers to shut down their plants, drain their glue lines, and refill them with environmentally friendly glue.

Indirectly, CityCenter is a giant demonstration project that may change the way other companies build their large projects. Usually, Ortega says, environmentally sensitive buildings are university or government buildings, and they have a sort of post-industrial, pedestrian aesthetic. Ortega says the biggest misconception people have is that all green buildings have to be that way. CityCenter shows green can be luxurious.

"The environmental movement is not about people sitting at home, huddling together, and trying to use as few resources as possible," Ortega says. "It's about preserving our resources and enhancing our quality of life. And our quality of life is greatly enhanced by our ability to travel. And (MGM Mirage is) in the travel industry."

Making the Complex Simple

Ortega found herself in the industry when she graduated from Harrah Hotel College in 1991. She started as a financial analyst, one of two students accepted into the Mirage's management training program. She did a stint in the '90s running a failed project for hotel management software with Microsoft, which would have run every aspect of the hotel including automatically setting daily room rates. It collapsed, she says, because it was too complex.

She learned a lot from that, gaining the insights that "You have to do things really simple when they're on a huge scale," and also that, "You shouldn't try to do everything all at once. Everything has a phase two and a phase three."

Those lessons were first in her mind when, after running the finances of the Mirage, she was promoted to senior vice president in 2006 (one of only 25 in a company that employs 40,000 people in Las Vegas alone) and given the task of launching a corporate division to green MGM Mirage and its latest, hugely ambitious project.

Ortega says that UNLV prepared her well for her job and the workplace, perhaps better than any other school could have. At the Hotel College, she learned from the leading experts in the field. She says UNLV graduates complement their academic and communication skills with a stronger work ethic than students from other schools.

"And remember that I interview and hire college graduates every year," Ortega says.

That's why two of her own children, ages 20 and 23, are attending UNLV.