Monday, June 19, 2006 | 7:01 a.m.
Manny Cortez, whose leadership and vision propelled Southern Nevada into an international tourism destination, died Sunday in the town where he had lived since age 5. Cortez was 67.
As head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for 13 years, Manuel J. "Manny" Cortez oversaw the development of campaigns that helped increase visitors from 21.3 million in 1991 to more than 35 million when he retired in 2004.
As a Clark County commissioner for 15 years, ending in 1991, Cortez shunned critics who claimed he was building a Taj Mahal with the McCarran International Airport expansion - a huge project that paved the way for the skyrocketing increase of visitors.
As administrator of the Nevada Taxicab Authority in the early to mid-1970s, he sought to improve taxi service throughout the valley and especially to and from the airport.
Cortez died at his home from an apparent heart attack, his family said. Services are pending.
"Manny was one of the cornerstones that made Las Vegas the success it is today," said Rossi Ralenkotter, who succeeded Cortez as president and chief executive of the LVCVA.
"He was one of the visionaries of our community - involved in all aspects of our town. He had a charismatic leadership quality, and he motivated others to improve things throughout the valley."
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cortez rallied his workers to develop both long- and short-term plans for campaign programs in the wake of significantly reduced visitor numbers because of people's fear of flying and potential future terrorist attacks.
"As a result of those actions and his leadership, we recovered quicker than other states," Ralenkotter said, noting that Cortez oversaw the change of three marketing strategies in 18 months.
The campaigns took into account the sensitive mood of the nation while letting potential revelers know that Las Vegas was open for business.
Cortez also addressed the growing convention market by overseeing the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall expansion.
On the day he announced his retirement, Cortez told the Sun, "It's time to move on. We've accomplished just about everything we've wanted to accomplish. Business is back, times are good. It's time to move on."
Sun Editor and President Brian Greenspun remembered his longtime friend as a man committed to family and to public service.
"When the late Gov. Mike O'Callaghan appointed Manny to the Taxi Authority, he said that in Manny he had a man who cared about people and about doing what was right," Greenspun said. "Manny lived that obligation throughout his life.
"I am sorry that he died so soon because I know how much enjoyment he got from his daughter (Catherine Cortez Masto) running for Nevada attorney general. I am sure he would have rejoiced on election night in her victory, for sure, but if not, in her commitment to public service."
Nevada Regent Thalia Dondero, who served on the County Commission with Cortez, remembered him as a fair man who tried to make just decisions.
"He was a real leader who tried to look at all sides of a question and seek good solutions," she said. "He had a number of positions in politics, and he was good at all of them."
Las Vegas attorney John Moran Jr. called his friend and longtime hunting buddy "a hard man to replace" in Southern Nevada.
"Manny was a flexible leader who had his finger on the pulse of Las Vegas," Moran said. "He knew what the community wanted and needed. He made his well-informed decisions from his heart, and they were well grounded in being for the betterment of this community."
Cortez was born April 29, 1939, in Las Cruces, N.M., the oldest of two children of Edward Cortez, a baker, and the former Mary Tapia, a retailer. Mary Cortez, now of Las Vegas, survives her son.
As a youngster, Cortez attended St. Joseph's grade school in Las Vegas. He was a graduate of Las Vegas High.
Cortez attended Nevada Southern University, which today is UNLV, and later received an honorary degree from the Community College of Southern Nevada.
Cortez worked for the Clark County district attorney's office and the Clark County public defender's office before being appointed to the Taxi Authority in 1973.
Cortez was first elected to the County Commission in 1976 and served four terms, including a stint as chairman.
One of his duties as a commissioner was serving as a member of the LVCVA board of directors from 1983 to 1984 and as its chairman from 1985 to 1990.
As a commissioner, Cortez also was chairman of the Clark County Sanitation District and the Clark County Liquor and Gaming Licensing Board and was on the governing boards of the University Medical Center and the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
Cortez became LVCVA president on July 2, 1991.
In 1995, Cortez and the LVCVA, in conjunction with the Clark County School District, developed an Academy of Travel and Tourism magnet school at Valley High School.
In 1999, Travel Agent magazine named Cortez the United States Person of the Year, calling him "one of the most astute marketers in the tourism industry."
Also that year, Manuel J. Cortez Elementary School at 4245 E. Tonopah Ave., was named for him.
During his later years at the helm of the Convention Authority, Cortez oversaw the popular "what happens here, stays here" campaign.
In June, 2005, Cortez opened a political and business consulting firm at 2340 Paseo Del Prado.
At the time of his death, Cortez served on the board of directors of Southwest Gas and the Community Board of St. Rose Dominican Hospitals.
Cortez was past president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Las Vegas. He also served on the boards of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Southern Nevada and Girls and Boys Town-Nevada.
In addition to his daughter and mother, Cortez is survived by his wife of 45 years, Joanna Cortez; another daughter, Cynthia Cortez Musgrove; a sister, Patricia Snider; and two grandchildren, Andrew Musgrove and Christina Musgrove, all of Las Vegas.