Monthly Archives: January 2016

Power play in full swing

The issue of rooftop solar is not likely to be settled soon.

But the battle lines have been drawn pitting star power and protestors vs. legislative mandate, Las Vegas vs. Nevada, the public perception of Nevada as a solar leader vs. reality.

On the morning of Jan. 13, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada held a hearing, solar advocate voices got louder, threats grew stronger, and the commission started preparations for an impending court battle.

Both sides have declared “game on.” And where that leads is anybody’s guess.

At stake for the residents with rooftop solar is a new rate that reduces the amount NV Energy pays for excess electricity that is supplied to the grid, in addition to a fee for hooking up to the grid.

The plan is designed to be implemented in steps over a four-year period. Net Energy Metering customers would see their service charge for connecting to the grid increase from the current $12.75 per month to a rate of $38.51 by Jan. 1, 2020. Meanwhile, the amount that they receive in credits for supplying energy to the grid will decrease from the 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour to 2.6 cents per by Jan. 1, 2020.

Because of the initial investment cost for solar panels, along with the reduced earning and increased connection fees, most agree that residents with solar panels will be paying more for electricity than residents without solar. NV Energy will be receiving energy to its grid without paying the cost of generating and, largely, transmitting because most energy generated by residential solar customers is distributed within the neighborhood.

That morning nearly 1,000 protesters stood outside the PUCN building in Las Vegas holding handmade signs and chanting slogans against NV Energy and Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The chants were led by high profile notables such as Debbie Dooley, a preacher’s daughter from Louisiana, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, member of the board of directors of the national Tea Party Patriots, and, since 2012, a fierce solar-power advocate.

She, along with actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo, most recently known for his portrayal of Dr. Bruce Banner in “The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron,” took turns speaking through a bullhorn delivering sound bite after sound bite.

“Tell your governor that he’s wrong — that the Public Utilities Commission is for the public, not the utility,” said Ruffalo. “Sandoval and the Public Utilities Commission is the anti-Robin Hood.” Ruffalo continued, saying “today is just the beginning. If the Public Utility Commission doesn’t come through and do the right thing for the people of Nevada — then it’s GAME ON!”

Within hours, the commission would accept that challenge.

Inside the chambers, it was standing-room only during the public comment period as speakers poured their hearts out for their allotted three minutes, pleading for the commission to reverse their December ruling that instituted a new rate structure and monthly connection fee.

During the seven hours of public comment, commissioners Paul Thomsen and David Noble in Carson City, and Commissioner Alaina Burtenshaw in Las Vegas, sat stoically while being accused of everything from taking bribes to collusion to not even knowing how solar energy works.

Meet the commissioners
The commission is made up of three members, each appointed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Commissioner Paul A. Thomsen became chairman on Oct. 1. Previously, he served as Sandoval’s appointee as the director of the Governor’s Office of Energy. He was selected for that position in September 2013.
Commissioner Alaina Burtenshaw, a lawyer, was appointed to the commission by Gov. Jim Gibbons on Jan. 18, 2010, and was re-appointed by Sandoval in June 2013. She served as chair of the PUCN from February 2011 to September 2015. Burtenshaw’s career with the PUCN began in 1992, first as assistant staff counsel and later staff counsel, with the Regulatory Operations arm of the PUCN.
Commissioner David Noble, also a lawyer, was appointed by Sandoval in August 2011 and reappointed in October 2012. He has been with the commission since 1997, working as an administrative attorney, assistant staff counsel, assistant general counsel, and hearings officer. Noble was also a commission liaison to the Nevada Legislature on various utility and administrative matters over six regular legislative sessions from 2001 to 2011.

After all the members of the public who asked to speak had their turn, the chairman declared the public comment period closed and moved onto to the next items on the agenda.

Three of the items involved the request for reconsideration of the exit fees being assessed to the Las Vegas Sands Corp. (owner of The Venetian, Palazzo, Sands Convention Center and this publication), Wynn Resorts, and MGM Resorts. The resorts want to leave Nevada Power and choose another provider. The request was denied in each of the three cases. A second request by each of the three entities to consider a different energy provider — yet to be named — was approved.

Then came the residential solar agenda item. The item itself, and the only thing that the commission was allowed to vote on during this meeting, was a “petition for a stay” of the December ruling until a petition for reconsideration could be heard.

That petition has been filed by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, Bureau of Consumer Protection, along with the Alliance for Solar, Vote Solar, and the Solar Energy Industry Association. The petition for reconsideration will be heard during a meeting in February.

Before taking a vote on the petition for a stay, the chairman, as is procedure, made a few corrections to the draft order, then asked if there were any comments or questions by each of the Commission members. Commissioners Noble and Burtenshaw replied that they did not.

However, Thomsen said “I feel greatly for the employees that lost their jobs. Receiving that news from all of us over the holidays was heavy on all of our hearts, and we heard today, and we have the distinct decision of balancing the rates for 2.8 million people who live in this state.”

Thomsen then acknowledged Commissioner Noble “for the incredible work” that he did in preparing the order.

Thomsen pointed out that Net Energy Metering first passed in 1997 and that the commission and the “highly qualified individuals that work here have been working with NEM since that time.”

“So I take offense, and I’ll take notice to all of the comments about how we don’t know what we’re doing, we didn’t do our homework. This commission has been working tirelessly not to penalize anyone or to favor one technology over the other, but to create a path forward for rooftop solar in this state that treats all rate payers fairly.”

Acknowledging that Ruffalo’s comments were exciting, Thomsen added that it “doesn’t make me uncomfortable to try to protect 98 percent of the residents in this state who don’t have net metering on their roofs.”

Thomsen then took this opportunity to ask Commissioner Noble a list of prepared questions. One of the important questions was about the contracts entered into by the residents for the sale of excess energy. The answer is, for those who lease their equipment, their contract is with the solar company. However, for those who purchased their system, the entered into an “agreement” with NV Energy whereby the language in those agreements state that it is subject to a legislative as well as a regulatory change.

Upon hearing that explanation, Thomsen took the opportunity to interject his observation that on June 5, the Nevada Legislature passed SB374, requiring the PUCN to develop an alternative to Net Energy Metering. Prior to that date, there were just 6,000 customers in the program. Currently there are more than 17,000 customers, which means that 11,000 were signed after the governor signed SB374.

“For the life of me, I don’t know why rooftop solar companies didn’t at least let their customers know that this proceeding was going on,” said Thomsen “I am flabbergasted; I don’t know why people would do that knowing that there was a decision coming down.”

What was interesting about the Q & A between Thomsen and Noble, is that the answers prepared by Noble were clearly designed to be read into public record in reply to the allocations made by the public during the public comment period, and to establish the basis by which their December decision had been made. Noble answered each question in detail, at times explaining technical terms for members of the pubic.

In the end, the petition for a stay was denied by the commission and the new rates remain in effect as of Jan. 1. And, while it was not stated out loud, the commission lead by Thomsen answered Ruffalo with its own implied version of “GAME ON.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 19, Steve Ross, the City of Las Vegas’ mayor pro tem, jumped into the fray stating that “Their [the PUCN] decision is a poor decision… and we need to do something different in the city and we’re going to do that.” His statement came on the heels of his proposal that the city form an independent committee of energy experts to advise the city in the development of a comprehensive energy strategy.

Part of Ross’s plan is the sponsoring of a city ordinance that would create an Energy Improvement District that would allow residents and businesses to pay for solar panels and energy efficiency improvements. The payments could be rolled into the property’s mortgage, making solar upgrades more affordable and tying the improvements to the home or business rather than the individual.

Besides the recently continued 30 percent federal rebate program on solar systems, Ross is also anticipating the development and availability of affordable energy storage systems which could make the discussion of Net Energy Metering a moot point.

“The city of Las Vegas not only supports solar energy, but has emerged as a world leader in sustainability. In this light, I am concerned by the recent ruling by the Public Utilities Commission that negatively impacts all those residents who have invested in solar in their homes, as well as those who hope to add solar in the future. I believe that this sends a mixed message to the world about the commitment that Las Vegas has to sustainability,” said Ross.


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Woodbury sees need for new funding for infrastructure



Many have seen his name on maps or posted along the 215, but Bruce Woodbury’s impact on the Las Vegas goes beyond being the visionary behind that beltway around the valley.

He’s no longer serving on the Clark County Commission, where he served for a record 28 years. But he’s still practicing law, still engaged in community projects and still advocating for transportation infrastructure.

These days, Woodbury is pushing for an extension of the monorail and sees a shift away from the fuel tax as the main source of funding for transportation infrastructure.

Born in Las Vegas in 1944, Woodbury attended historic Las Vegas High School where he was a four-year letterman and all-conference guard.

Woodbury’s son Rod penned a story for the Boulder City Magazine that recounted, “When he (Woodbury) was only 16, his father died of cancer, and his mother followed two years later. So, he married his sweetheart, started a family of seven, and ultimately graduated with honors from the University of Utah and Stanford Law School, where he took an early morning paper route and worked in a liquor bottling plant while my mom made draperies from home.”

Most people who know Woodbury describe him as shy and soft-spoken. But beneath his humble exterior is a man who almost single-handedly transformed Las Vegas from a small horse-and-buggy town to a master-planned community.

Woodbury graduated from Stanford in 1969 and returned to Southern Nevada, residing in Boulder City. He passed the Nevada Bar in 1970 and began practicing law in Las Vegas.

In 1976, Woodbury represented Clark County at the Nevada Supreme Court in a case about the consolidation of Clark County and the City of Las Vegas. Woodbury’s handling of that case along with his involvement in civic organizations caught the attention of then-Gov. Robert List who appointed Woodbury to the Clark County Commission in 1981 to replace Bob Broadbent, who had resigned. In 1982, voters elected Woodbury to his first of seven terms on the Clark County Commission.

Among his many official titles, Woodbury is often referred to as the “father of flood control” as it was his vision in 1985 to create the Clark County Regional Flood Control District. Since that time, the District has constructed dozens of detention basins and improved miles of drainage channels throughout the Las Vegas Valley.

In 1990, as the chairman of the County Commission and incoming chairman of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), Woodbury saw the need for improved transportation infrastructure and began working on a new transportation plan for the Las Vegas Valley. This plan included a “fair share” funding mechanism that was approved by the voters and resulted in the creation of the Desert Inn Super Arterial, pedestrian bridges around the intersections along the resort corridor of Las Vegas Boulevard, and a new and more efficient bus system. That initiative also created a beltway loop around the valley.

The beltway project started in Henderson at U.S. Highway 95 and worked west toward Interstate 15. It soon became obvious to Woodbury that it was going to take a long time to build full freeway segments around the valley. So Woodbury came up with a plan to build a combination of frontage roads and two-lane and four-lane segments around the valley and then come back and complete the project to freeway specifications. That work is ongoing.

The beltway became identified as the Bruce Woodbury Beltway or Clark County 215

“I am very grateful to a lot of people that took action to have that project named after me. The issue of infrastructure was a crusade for me, and I pleased with what we accomplished,” said Woodbury.

Although Woodbury no longer sits on the County Commission or the RTC, he is still very much involved in improving the infrastructure of the community.

On Feb. 3, 2009, Woodbury was appointed as a member of the Board of Directors of the Las Vegas Monorail Co. and is working to promote the extension of the monorail from the MGM south to Mandalay Bay. In addition, he is working with a group of citizens to promote the passage of a November ballot question to extend the indexing of the fuel tax.

“This will be a very important ballot question and absolutely needed if we are going to continue with our infrastructure improvement plans,” said Woodbury.

However, with the increase in vehicle fuel efficiency and production of electric vehicles, the revenues from the fuel tax has steadily decreased each of the past five years.

“There is no question that the fuel tax is becoming less and less of a reliable source,” said Woodbury. “Part of the transportation plan that I came up with back in 1990 (with the help of others) goes well beyond the fuel tax. There are six different elements, including a sales tax component, motor vehicle privilege tax, developer tax and a hotel/motel room tax component. I think that you can expect to see more alternatives to the fuel tax similar to what we did in our 1990 plan.”

Nationwide, there are different proposals being considered, such as vehicle use and mileage taxes. However, due to the “big brother effect” of having a GPS monitor vehicle use and other types of reporting components necessary for gauging the use or miles traveled, those proposals have not been popular with the voting public.

In 1984, Woodbury joined the law firm of Jolley Urga and Worth, which later became Jolley Urga Woodbury & Little.

“I was fortunate that I had partners who supported me in my public service by accommodating my flexible hours and conflicting court dates.”

During his 28 years as a commissioner, Woodbury worked long hours. “Most of the time I had children in school and at night while they did their homework, I did mine,” he said.

Woodbury estimates that on average he split the work evenly 50/50 between his duties as a commissioner and as a lawyer/partner in the firm.

When it comes to the future landscape for lawyers and law firms in Nevada, Woodbury believes it will be challenging. He cites that the compensation for beginning lawyers has been stagnant and even down for the past five years and law school enrollments are also down. The trend for specialization has grown and will continue to grow, as well as the trend toward big multistate firms.

“But I think that there is still a place for a good, solid medium-size firm like ours that has a strong client base and solid reputation,” he said.

Over the years, the law firm of Jolley Urga Woodbury & Little has been approached numerous times by national firms to become their local branch, and by local firms to compete with the national firms.

“We have decided not to go with the trend. Whether that is smart or not, it has worked out OK for us,” said Woodbury.

The firm has a broad-based practice of which real estate and corporate law is a large part. They also do estate planning, probate, bankruptcy and personal injury work. In addition, Bill Urga, a highly respected and former member of the Nevada Gaming Commission, adds gaming and liquor licensing law to the portfolio.

With respect to the UNLV Boyd School of Law, Woodbury feels that students are receiving a high-quality education and are able to compete well with students from other universities. However, the best education usually comes after they graduate with experience.

“UNLV didn’t have a law school when I went to college, so I graduated Stanford and received a very good education,” he explained. “However, I learned far more in my first year or two after law school than I did during school.”

Woodbury did not plan to be a lawyer. He started out thinking that he might be in medicine or dentistry, following in the footprints of his father, an oral surgeon, or his grandfather and three uncles who were physicians.

“However, I didn’t enjoy chemistry lab or zoology classes so I switched major and thought — there is always law,” Woodbury said said with a chuckle, “because you can do a lot of things with a law degree. I probably was regarded as the black sheep of the family by becoming a lawyer — I tell people I couldn’t figure out anything useful to do so I became a lawyer and a politician instead.”

In addition to flood control and transportation planning, Woodbury is also responsible for the clean air we breathe, taking Las Vegas off the U.S. EPA’s nonattainment list while serving as the first chairman of the Clark County Air Quality Management Board and pressing for the county’s Clean Air Action Plan.

Woodbury also served as the first chairman of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition and served on various task forces and committees that studied the effects of growth. That growth arrived with a bang and Woodbury is looking forward to writing a new chapter in creating infrastructure to match that growth.


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Levi Strauss celebrates sustainability achievement

Levi Strauss & Company honored employees stand for photo with Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen at the Levi Strauss & Company‘s Sky Harbor Distribution Center, 501 Executive Airport Drive, in Henderson on Thursday, Jan. 7,2016. The one million square foot distribution center was honored for its sustainability with the Platinum LEED certification.Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal Follow him @jlscheid

Levi Strauss & Company honored employees stand for photo with Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen at the Levi Strauss & Company‘s Sky Harbor Distribution Center, 501 Executive Airport Drive, in Henderson on Thursday, Jan. 7,2016. The one million square foot distribution center was honored for its sustainability with the Platinum LEED certification.Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal Follow him @jlscheid

Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., summed up his firm’s position as “We want to be the most sustainable apparel company in the world.”

Kobori was speaking Jan. 11 at a ceremony presenting Exhibit A — a Henderson distribution facility that has attained a LEED Platinum Certification for Existing Buildings from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

The 620,000-square-foot Levi Sky Harbor Distribution Center, next to Henderson Executive Airport, is the largest facility of its kind in the world to achieve this highest building certification from the USGBC.

Speaking before many of the center’s employees, Kobori was quick to point out that this achievement would not have been possible if it were not for the efforts of the local sustainability team and every individual working in the Henderson facility.

The sustainability team took the initiative by identifying the opportunities, developing the plans and finding ways to fund the resources needed to conserve energy, save water and reduce overall waste. The employees make a conscious effort to recycle everything they possibly can and even bring used batteries from home for the battery-recycling program. The result is a 90 percent reduction in waste that is sent to the local landfill.

During a tour of the facility, Cheryl Smith, a 10-year employee of the company, was proud to show off her idea for energy savings. She designed a wall plate for the light switches with a graphic to remind employees to turn off the lights when they leave a room.

Not only is Levi working to save the environment, the company is also encouraging its employees to be health-conscious. The company has replaced the old vending machines with new ones containing healthy snacks and has developed healthy food menus for the cafeteria. In addition, before workers begin their shift, they gather in the warehouse for an organized stretching program in an effort to reduce muscle and joint injuries.

Levi has called Henderson its home since 1972. It moved from a facility on Conestoga Way to its new facility at St. Rose Parkway and Executive Airport Drive in 1994, six years before the introduction of the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program was introduced.

The process of retrofitting the building to become more sustainable was started in 2010. Levi began by removing the turf and planting drought-tolerant plants around the building. Inside the building, it installed low flow water fixtures and 24-foot diameter ceiling fans to circulate the air and reduce the air-conditioning demand. It has reduced the amount of heat absorbed by the building by installing a white reflective roof that also reduces the outside “heat island effect” by dropping the roof temperature by 45 degrees during the hottest days of the summer.

All of the mechanical equipment used in the warehouse is designed to save energy. The motors used for the conveyor system have sensors that can tell how much weight is being moved and automatically adjust power up or down based on the load. The forklifts are electric, which in addition to reducing air pollution also conserve electricity through a charging system that shuts down when the unit reaches a full charge.

“We have done something that nobody else in the world has done,” said Kobori.

However, that does not mean the company has reached its goal. There are over 4,000 lights throughout the warehouse facility, and calculations are being made as to the cost to convert each fixture to LED bulbs and the estimated energy savings.

“We are going to take what we have learned here in Henderson and use it in our facilities around the world,” said Kobori.

Levi, which also manufactures Dockers and Denizen brands, has three company-owned warehouse distribution facilities in the U.S. and a number of company distribution and manufacturing facilities around the world.

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Agassi goes for the win

Andre Agassi, chairman and founder of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, left, and Andy Butler, CEO of Square Panda, are shown during a press conference announcing a partnership of the foundation with the educational technology company at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal

Andre Agassi, chairman and founder of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, left, and Andy Butler, CEO of Square Panda, are shown during a press conference announcing a partnership of the foundation with the educational technology company at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal

For Andre Agassi, giving back to the community and educating children is as much of a passion today as tennis was when he was winning championships 20 and 30 years ago.

In 1994, he created the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which provides at-risk children in Southern Nevada with educational opportunities and recreational activities. The foundation raised the $175 million needed to start the Andre Agassi College Preparatory School, which opened its doors in West Las Vegas in 2001.

But that was just the beginning.

He has led a national effort that’s launched a flood of charter schools in an effort to scale his vision.

And on Jan. 4, Agassi appeared at a press event at Bellagio for the announcement of Square Panda, a new educational learning tool in which he has personally invested and sits on the Board of Directors.

Square Panda works on an iPad and is designed to teach, engage, and entertain early learners (ages three and up). The phonics-based playset uses letter toys and multi-sensory apps to explore early reading skills. The basic unit is $99 and comes with three free apps. Other apps are available by subscription.

“It is one thing to put up money and another thing to put up the entire brand that I have spent my life protecting and building, which is me and what I stand for what I want to be and what I have given my life to. I am not going to put that on the chopping block for any reason. However, the Square Panda is a scalable teaching tool that has a direct barometer of the results and that is why I have agreed to become a part of this product,” said Agassi.


Back story

Agassi was born in 1970 in Las Vegas. He first picked up a tennis racket when he was a toddler at the insistence of his father, an immigrant from Iran and a former Olympic boxer.

A big part of Agassi’s passion for education is personal. In his mid-teens, Agassi abandoned his education to train full time. He moved to Florida where he went to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Agassi proved to be one of the top junior players in the sport, winning several U.S. Tennis Association national titles.

At the age of 16, Agassi decided it was time to compete in the big leagues and turned professional in 1986. Agassi became the number one player in the world and dominated the game from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, winning eight grand slam titles.

“I’m not an educator; I’m not an operator, but I am a facilitator, and education is very important to me. I had a lack of it but was lucky enough to be decent at a sport,” Agassi said Jan. 4 in announcing his newest venture.

According to Agassi, for the children that do not receive a proper education and that aren’t lucky enough to succeed in a particular sport, they are left with a future that is already determined for them. “Gangs, prison systems, the whole deal. It costs society much more on the back end to incarcerate somebody than it does to educate a child,” he said.

“I am proud to say that I get the chance to give back to 1,300 kids on an annual basis. But, the frustrating thing for me through this experience is recognizing that there is no scalability in my impact.”

Agassi has spent a lot of years trying to figure out how to scale his mission in the charitable space. “I recognized that it’s not a software issue, it’s a hardware issue,” he explained.



In his search for an answer, he formed the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facility Fund, a partnership with real estate executive Bobby Turner. Through this fund, Agassi has gone to the for-profit private sector and raised approximately $550 million through charitable events across the country.

As of last August, Turner-Agassi had opened 53 charter schools with plans to open an additional 12 schools by next August. Agassi expects to invest over $1.5 billion over the next four to five years to build an additional 120 schools across the country.

Meanwhile, the business of raising money for any charitable cause has become more difficult since the recession. His annual Grand Slam Charity events used to raise an additional $8 million to $15 million in auction proceeds on top of the $18 million in ticket sales. “During the last event, I raised $18 million and made an executive decision to pull the auction. I wasn’t going to ask people who paid their money to come there to now pony up and buy more things and exhaust them further,” said Agassi.


Charter schools

The good news is that he has worked through the learning curve. The $175 million that built 1,300 seats in Las Vegas will build 17,000 seats in the future. In addition, the interest in charter schools is growing thanks to an increase in charter school-friendly laws that are being passed throughout the country.

“We have a broken education system. Speaking for myself, I am tired of waiting for the government to solve issues. I am tired of waiting for philanthropy to figure out a way to be scaled. We have to come to the table on multiple fronts and figure out solutions to real daunting societal issues,” said Agassi.

And Agassi works very hard at attaining his goals. “The discipline of sport has taught me that no matter how high the mountain there is to climb, it is achievable one step at a time. When you look at winning a grand slam or being ranked number 1 in the world, it is a series of a thousand great decisions over and over again, and all of a sudden you look at the scoreboard and you have won.

“So when I look at what it has taken to get this off the ground, to be sitting here today, it has been a thousand commitments, and the result is benefiting a lot of people’s lives, a lot of caring parents’ lives, and a lot of students’ lives.”


Hometown feel

Despite Agassi’s quest to build schools across the country, he remains loyal to Las Vegas.

“This city has been so good to me — the entire state of Nevada has been good to me. I spent my whole life growing up here, was raised here, raised my kids here. I traveled the world for a period of time in-between when I turned professional, but my heart is here — we have the ability to live anywhere in the world, and we choose here,” said Agassi.

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From taverns to ed tech

Tom Boeckle, chairman and co-founder of Square Panda, and his brother Phil, co-founder and vice president, are shown during a product launch for the Square Panda phonics play-set and announcement of the company´s partnership with the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal

Tom Boeckle, chairman and co-founder of Square Panda, and his brother Phil, co-founder and vice president, are shown during a product launch for the Square Panda phonics play-set and announcement of the company´s partnership with the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal

How do two brothers who grew up on the streets of New York City and could not read until the age of eight, end up building one of the largest pub chains in Las Vegas, sell it for a lot of money and then design a computer program to teach kids how to read?

If you ask nearly identical twin brothers Phil and Tom Boeckle, they will say that it took a lot of street smarts, intuition and just plain work.

“Here’s what I tell people,” said Phil Boeckle. “When a kid’s eight years old, and he throws a football, he’s got a talent, right? Well, at eight years old, we knew how to make money. We were natural entrepreneurs.”

“At ten years old we were actually business guys,” continued brother Tom.

In October 1982, the Boeckle brothers opened their first PT’s Pub on Palm Street on the east side of Las Vegas, near the point where St. Louis Avenue turns into Palm Street. By the mid-1990s, PT’s was known as a place to hang out, have a beer, shoot pool and lose track of time.

It was a concept that had legs.

In the spring of 2002, Phil and Tom Boeckle sold their 23 PT’s locations to Golden Gaming founder Blake Sartini.

They could have ridden off into the sunset but they didn’t. Being the driven, entrepreneurial type personalities that they are, the brothers went to work silently planning their next venture.

Fast forward to 2011 and the brothers hit upon an idea for a computer software and hardware combination that would teach children how to read based on the principals of phonics. The product is called Square Panda and it is designed to teach, engage, and entrain early learners (ages three and up). The phonics-based playset uses letter toys and multi-sensory apps to explore early reading skills.

Their motivation comes from childhood experiences that bore some similarities to those of the young Andre Agassi some 2,500 miles west in Las Vegas. While Agassi’s education was cut short to chase a pro tennis career, the Boeckles’ problems came earlier — from first grade to sixth grade, they did not know how to read.

“I never had the proper training for Pre-K, and I always said to myself, if I ever become successful, have the money or the time, that we are going to make a change,” Tom Boeckle said. “We’re going to change the world and try to correct a problem that hasn’t been corrected.”

“It’s a real handicap not being able to read,” said Phil finishing his brother’s sentence right on cue.

The two men in their late fifty’s, standing side by side, with just a hint of grey showing through their finely coiffed hair, look more like body builders than computer software giants.

“Think about it now,” continued Tom. “If someone doesn’t sit down and work with you on a pre-K level, who’s gonna teach ya. I mean, a lot of kids aren’t taught at all. Their parents let them out to play and do all kinds of other things but don’t give them a scholastic background before they enter first grade; it is very hard for them to catch up when they do enter school.”

“We came from a really poor family, were pretty much on our own,” said Tom. “But we always went to school,” continued Phil as if tagging in. “We weren’t very good students, but we went to school.”

The two co-founders run the company from their Las Vegas office and have a research and development division in Silicon Valley. They also have a development office in Hong Kong. To date, the company has approximately 48 full and part-time employees, mostly in California. However, after the product launch, the brothers anticipate that the company will grow really quickly. They expect to be employing a large number of people in Nevada for sales, marketing and customer service positions.

The product captured the attention of Andre Agassi, who has not only invested in the product but is a member of the Board of Directors and a spokesperson.

“Square Panda is unique and has the potential to create a generation of confident readers,” said Agassi. “I know one of the most important skills for a child to possess as they enter kindergarten is a basic understanding of phonics. If you can teach a child basic reading, then the child will begin their educational experience with self-confidence. We are excited to team up with Square Panda to launch this revolutionary new learning system.”

After the formal launch of Square Panda, the brothers will be concentrating on their next invention. They would not comment except to say that it is a unique and extremely sophisticated learning device. “It’s no better than Square Panda; it’s different,” said Tom.

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