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April 23, 2014

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City with image problem puts a new face forward

Those entering North Las Vegas eastbound on Lake Mead Boulevard are greeted with a message on a large piece of sandstone: "Welcome to Friendly North Las Vegas."

A lot of images come to mind when many valley residents think of North Las Vegas, but friendly isn't likely to be one of them.

North Las Vegas, known to many by its informal moniker "Northtown," has become in many people's minds synonymous with homeless shelters, gangs, drugs and street crimes. The bedroom community also has a high ethnic population and lots of low-income housing.

What many people may not realize, however, is that the city at the top of the Las Vegas Valley has become one of the fastest-growing and prosperous areas in Southern Nevada.

And people who live in North Las Vegas, including members of the Chamber of Commerce and city officials, are launching a long-term effort to once and for all create an image for the city that matches its progress.

"North Las Vegas has always struggled with its image," Richard Conner, executive director of the North Las Vegas chamber, said. "People in the Las Vegas Valley still refer to us as Northtown, which is not a positive label."

While official figures proclaim Henderson as the fastest-growing community in the country, Conner said that North Las Vegas, which has grown from 40,000 to nearly 100,000 since the 1990 U.S. Census, may be in contention for that designation.

"North Las Vegas' growth started in the latter part of the 1980s when (Mirage Resorts Chairman) Steve Wynn announced he was building Shadow Creek Golf Course here," he said. "That put the stamp of approval on North Las Vegas."

That was the beginning of the image change city officials had hoped for, according to Conner.

"The media has no concept of what (area) is North Las Vegas and what isn't," he said.

Neither do valley residents who place the Catholic Charities Plaza within the city, even though the homeless shelter actually is located to the south within the Las Vegas city limits.

Crime reported in West Las Vegas and to the east of North Las Vegas also often is mistakenly attributed to their neighbor sandwiched in between.

North Las Vegas Police Lt. Mike Blackwell can attest to that, adding that the city's bad reputation, which he says is unwarranted, goes back years.

"The image of North Las Vegas is based solely on its reputation from years and years ago," he said.

And Blackwell would know. The 25-year veteran of the police force said North Las Vegas had a reputation of crime running rampant before 1974.

"I found that it is not true," he said. "North Las Vegas is not any more dangerous or crime-ridden than any other part of the valley. The statistics plus my personal experience reflect that ... we don't live up to that reputation."

Blackwell said the department is working to get more officers on the streets to keep the crime numbers down -- "not only to serve in those high crime areas but also to get high visibility in all areas."

Blackwell acknowledged, however, that there are certain neighborhoods citizens want to avoid because of gang and drug activity, just as there are in Las Vegas and Henderson.

"We target those to clean up to make it safer for those who live and work there," he said.

Identity crisis

Part of North Las Vegas' image problem evolves from its location. Many people assume everything north of downtown Las Vegas is North Las Vegas, as well as everything west of Interstate 15.

Rancho Drive and Decatur Boulevard form the city's western boundary, while Pecos Road and Lamb Boulevard form the boundary to the east. The city reaches as far north as the Desert National Wildlife Range.

The southbound dividing line for North Las Vegas primarily runs along Lake Mead Boulevard and Owens Avenue -- a stone's throw from West Las Vegas.

"The crime that is bad on the west side (of Las Vegas) has been attributed to North Las Vegas," Blackwell said, adding the city has the same problem with its eastern border.

Jacque Risner, economic-development manager, said North Las Vegas is in the process of putting up markers to better identify city boundaries in an effort to curb confusion.

The recent widening of Lake Mead Boulevard, one of the city's major arterials, has created a dramatic change in the look of the city, according to Conner, and has given it a needed face lift.

One of the city's goals is to make its entrances more attractive, thus enhancing its overall image, Risner said.

Building civic pride

In order to change North Las Vegas' image throughout the valley, city and chamber officials realize they must start at the source.

That's why residents, one-third of which are Hispanic, are the main target of a new image campaign sponsored in part by the Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber Director Laura Coleman was the impetus behind the chamber's Image Enhancement Committee and remains one of the city's biggest cheerleaders.

Coleman and her husband, Mickey, have owned the Poker Palace casino at 2757 Las Vegas Boulevard North for nearly 25 years.

She has always been sensitive about how North Las Vegas is perceived, but it was a January article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that spurred her into action.

Otherwise a lighthearted, fluffy look at pet names and types throughout the Las Vegas Valley, the article's tone suddenly changed with this ending paragraph: "North Las Vegas' pets live up to the tough image the town has long projected. The most popular breeds there are no-nonsense persuasions like German shepherds, pit bulls and chows. In fact the first dog listed in the North Las Vegas database is a Rottweiler -- and it's owned by a junkyard."

Coleman said that was the final jab at her civic pride, the one that put her over the top.

"I went absolutely nuts," she said. "I don't like generalizations. ... Don't be derogatory to 93,000 people."

Since then, Coleman said her mission has been to "change how people talk about North Las Vegas."

In order to do that, she formed the enhancement committee, an arm of the chamber, which is made up of some 14 members as well as city staff, including Risner.

The product of a family of broadcasters, Coleman turned to the medium she thought would bring the city the greatest exposure: television.

"We didn't want to start a whiny letter-writing campaign (to the local media)," she said. "We wanted to educate the community about what's good in North Las Vegas."

That's when "North Las Vegas Now!" was born. Hosted by Coleman, 13 half-hour shows, put together on a shoestring budget by Coleen Stauffer and Christine Johnston of Eclipse Productions, have been airing at 11 a.m. Sundays on Channel 33, or 6 for cable subscribers. The final show will be broadcast Dec. 6.

But that won't be the end of the show. Coleman said Channel 4, the public-access station, has agreed to air reruns three times a week.

"Our goal is to let people know that we are just not sitting here," she said. "Even though the community has more than doubled, we are still a small town and a real friendly place."

Funding for the show comes mainly from advertising, although the city did kick in $1,500 to help get it on the air. In order to continue broadcasting, Coleman said the show needs a major underwriter.

She admitted that while feedback has been positive, there are no numbers to show what kind of impact the show has had on the public.

"People who watch it say they didn't know that (about a certain subject) about North Las Vegas," she said.

In keeping with her enhancement efforts, but on a more personal level, the Poker Palace opened an upscale restaurant two weeks ago called Laura's Vineyard.

"You have to start from the inside," she said. "That's why we put in the new restaurant to bring people into North Las Vegas."

Dennis Cicala, food and beverage director for the Poker Palace, was the driving force behind the new outlet.

"I had the feeling North Las Vegas was ready for something nice," he said. "We wanted a nice out-of-the-way place that would draw people in from Las Vegas."

Ironically, despite being a champion for the city, Coleman does not live within its borders.

"We would live here if we could find a house that fit our needs," she said.

In another effort to involve residents in enhancing others' perceptions about the city, Councilwoman Stephanie Smith, a music teacher, sponsored a song contest in which residents were asked to praise the city's attributes in verse.

"We plan on being more visible," Coleman said. "I'm not going to let the committee die. If we go forth with the show, we are going to do it right and put it on one of the local networks."

New features abound

The North Mesa Plaza at the corner of Craig Road and Martin Luther King Boulevard could be anywhere in the valley.

The familiar glow of Wal-Mart is mixed with a Vons grocery store and an Applebee's restaurant -- the first of their kind in North Las Vegas, known more for its mom-and-pop establishments than national chains.

And across the street plans are in the works for a 250,000-square-foot center that would create the city's first enclosed mall and include a multiplex theatre, a bowling alley, fitness center, convention facilities and amphitheater. The NevStar 2000 complex, proposed by NevStar Gaming Corp., would also include a hotel-casino and retail shopping.

The commercial development west of Interstate 15 is reflective of the burgeoning residential growth in the northwest, according to Conner.

At a recent North Las Vegas business expo, Conner said he was amazed at the number of people who compared the city to Henderson.

He reminisced that it was around the turn of the decade that some 200 developers started building upscale homes north of Craig Road.

"The growth has been virtually unabated," Conner said.

That growth is behind a troubling side to any new picture of North Las Vegas: that of two cities, the new and the old, growing apart rather than of one city coming together.

But not everyone feels that side really exists.

City Councilwoman Paula Brown in 1990 was one of the first five families to move into the Eldorado master-planned community.

She said she feels the newer area of the city and the mature area are growing toward each other, south of Cheyenne Road.

"We are one city with different needs," Brown said. "My goal is to blend North Las Vegas so we don't have the thought that this is new and old, or this is the northwest and this is the mature area."

It is more than distance, however, that continues to separate the two areas. There is a stigma that plagues the older, downtown section of the city.

And Conner said the businesses east of Interstate 15 are faced with the challenge of attracting city residents through their doors.

Northwest resident Marilyn Kirkpatrick summed up the disparity when she said she doesn't utilize the North Las Vegas Library, located downtown next to City Hall on Civic Center Drive.

"It's dark down there and scary," she said.

Kirkpatrick, a 30-year resident, was one of the participants in a series of community workshops to help design the new North Las Vegas Branch Library planned for the southwest corner of Alexander Road and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

"When are we going to get a theater, nice eating places and a senior center?" she asked. "All of these things come with a mature city. And in this microwave world, we want it yesterday. But it doesn't happen at the rate we are growing."

Downtown is home to residents -- now senior citizens -- who have lived there for 20 or 30 years. They need code enforcement and street repairs, according to Brown.

But they also need some of the same services as their new neighbors to the northwest.

Brown said she would like to see a Target or Wal-Mart open in the mature section of city.

"Those folks need it, too," she said. "I'd love to get the services in the mature section where families could go and enjoy each other."

And there is another tie between the two groups of which newer residents may not be aware. Some 20 years ago it was the citizens living in the downtown area who voted to put infrastructure in the northwest, before there was anything there.

"Those citizens had a vision, along with the council, that they wanted to broaden the tax base," Brown said.

"Quite frankly, if it wasn't for the mature section of town and the voters there, we in the northwest wouldn't be there."

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