Come next spring, local businesses will lose an advocate and labor unions will lose a lightning rod.
Kara Kelley, the high-profile president and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, announced Tuesday that she plans to retire on April 1 from the 6,500-member group, which is the nation's third-largest chamber.
It's time to pursue other professional opportunities, said Kelley, 41, who joined the chamber in 1995 and became its leader in 2002.
"There isn't a specific type of job or position I'm looking for, but I feel I've made some fairly significant contributions at the chamber. Now, I'm ready to embark on the next phase of my professional career," she said.
Kelley's decision surprised the chamber's board members.
"I wasn't expecting it, but I certainly understand why she made the decision," said Gina Polovina, a board member who's also vice president of government and community affairs at Boyd Gaming Corp. "After 14 years of service, she wants to develop her skills in a different venue. It's a bittersweet moment for the organization."
Board member and Realty Executives co-owner Fafie Moore said she also had no inkling of any planned changes at the chamber's top, but she appreciates Kelley's desire for professional development.
"Kara is a very talented leader, and she's young. She has a very bright future ahead of her, so I'm not surprised she would be looking long-term as to what her other options might be," Moore said.
Kelley oversees policymaking, political advocacy, strategic planning and long-range goals for the chamber.
Thanks partly to her vocal support of business on issues including public-sector pay, the minimum wage and water sources for Southern Nevada, Kelley's time as chamber head has featured several notable tussles with the group's antagonists and resulted in public policies and laws that affect all Nevadans.
The chamber commissioned and published a series of studies in 2008 that focused on compensation packages among government workers. The reports said, among other findings, that state workers' benefits divert tax money from public services to medical costs for retired employees, that the state's Public Employees Retirement System would be more fiscally sustainable if it changed from a pension plan to a 401(k)-style contribution plan, and that average pay for government workers in Nevada was 31 percent higher than the pay of their counterparts nationwide and 28 percent more than wages among private-sector workers.
The studies drew major fire from unions representing police officers, firefighters and teachers.
Unions ran a full-page newspaper advertisement in February pointing to Kelley's $274,000 annual salary and accusing chamber executives and salespeople of making far more than the public workers charged with protecting lives and educating future generations.
But the chamber's efforts also helped encourage reforms. Police officers and firefighters hired after Jan. 1 will have to work 30 years before they can retire with full benefits, up from the 25 years the law previously mandated. And future public employees who retire early would be docked 6 percent of their retirement pay for each early year, up from 4 percent under prior regulations. All told, the changes should eventually save the Public Employees Retirement System $142 million a year.
Talking about the controversy Tuesday, Kelley said she was pleased with the strides the chamber made in the 2009 legislative session.
"We certainly didn't get everything we wanted, but that's how the legislative process works. We think this is an important issue and really vital to the economic well-being of this state," Kelley said. "It will continue to be a priority for the chamber."
Kelley also helmed the chamber during the group's tough 2003 fight against a gross-receipts tax on Nevada businesses. The chamber agitated against the broad-based levy, even as several of the city's biggest companies promoted the tax. The chamber won the battle -- the Legislature dropped the tax from its budget plans -- but it lost some major members. MGM Mirage and Station Casinos quit the group, and Station transferred its business to vendors who didn't support the chamber's efforts. The Greenspun Corp., which owns development companies, casinos and the Las Vegas Sun, cut its financial support, as did Summerlin developer The Howard Hughes Corp.
Kelley says now that she wishes relations with errant members could have stayed friendlier through the taxation debate.
"I really regretted the divisiveness of that (legislative) process. At the time, I thought both I and the chamber were trying to keep the lines of communication open with our members and key industries and their constituencies," she said. "We probably could have done a better job with the benefit of hindsight."
Kelley also challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on his support for a higher minimum wage in 2006, and she spoke out against state Sen. Bob Beers' 2006 Tax and Spending Control petition because it didn't address long-term liabilities for government workers' pay and benefits.
Moore called Kelley's business advocacy "tireless," while Polovina credited her with a "magnificent job" as chief executive.
More recently, the chamber has struggled with a slumping economy, as some of its members have gone out of business or cut nonessential expenses such as trade-group dues. In response to the slowdown, the chamber laid off about 20 percent of its 58-member staff in April.
Those travails haven't kept the trade group from starting new initiatives. Kelley pointed to Vegas Young Professionals, a group for businesspeople younger than 40 that's grown to 800 members in three years, and the group recently launched a new series of seminars designed to help companies weather the recession.
The chamber also sold its Howard Hughes Center headquarters in the middle of town and moved in 2008 to a leased building in Town Square, a newer, mixed-use retail and office complex on Las Vegas Boulevard South.
Chamber Chairman Steve Hill said in a statement that Kelley has provided "extraordinary leadership."
"She has continuously developed new strategies to serve the needs of members in good times and bad," Hill stated. "She has been a strong advocate for businesses at all levels of government, working to ensure that Southern Nevada remains one of the best places in the world to do business."
Kelley, a native Nevadan who was born at Sunrise Hospital and attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said she plans to stay in the Silver State after she leaves the chamber.
The chamber plans a national search for Kelley's replacement.