Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

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A city’s growing pains

The third-fastest-growing city in the country, North Las Vegas also is, in many respects, two separate communities.

The same rapid growth that has seen North Las Vegas more than triple its population within 15 years -- from 47,707 in 1990 to 178,166 in the latest estimate in July -- also has produced a schism in the community between some long-time residents and newcomers.

Many whose roots are deep enough to remember the days when their city was dismissively referred to as "North Town" appreciate how master-planned subdivisions such as Aliante and Eldorado along the Las Vegas Beltway have helped to lift their community's image.

What they do not appreciate, however, is what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as preferential treatment from city leaders who, they feel, have their attention -- and more important, their tax dollars -- focused on the recent arrivals, to the detriment of older neighborhoods.

"I think there has been an emphasis on the new part of town and not enough on this part," said Shirley De Mille, who has lived in the southern end of the city for more than 35 years. "The city needs to use what they have to make the older parts look better. It has started to look better, but it is not fast enough."

For years, older neighborhoods south of Cheyenne Avenue have contributed to the city's long-standing image as an area riddled with high crime and low-income housing.

That image is yielding, though, to the new realities created to the north by Aliante and Eldorado, upscale communities reminiscent of Summerlin or the newer parts of Henderson.

"There is no more negative stigma on North Las Vegas because this is the new North Las Vegas," said Aliante resident and Las Vegas native Anthony Williams, who has seen the transformation since he moved to the city in 1999 and Aliante nearly two years ago. "Aliante has changed the face of North Las Vegas forever."

Aliante is projected to have 20,000 residents when it is built out with 7,000 homes. More than 3,400 homes have been closed on to date. Eldorado, which is nearing completion, will have about 18,000 people in 5,500 homes when it is built out.

Some of the city's newcomers view themselves as part of their own community, one they see as distinct from North Las Vegas, even though they fall within its boundary, Williams said. With older areas of downtown North Las Vegas being more than 20 minutes away, many don't recognize that their neighborhoods are part of the same town.

"There is so much between us, they don't even know it is the old North Las Vegas," Williams said. "You have to be a long-time local to know that."

Residents of the older areas, however, are keenly aware of the city's political boundaries and that newer developments are a part of it.

Some long-time residents feel as if the city's phenomenal growth is passing them by -- and that the city government is catering to the newcomers with parks, libraries and other facilities and services.

Like many, De Mille welcomes the growth in the city and credits elected officials for putting a new shine on North Las Vegas' image. To the extent the new residents have contributed to that transformation, she is delighted over their presence.

"I used to live in Henderson when I was going to high school, and I could remember the Hooterville image," she said. "They don't have that anymore, and the same thing is happening here. They are cleaning up the place, and things are looking better."

But De Mille said more can be done and worries that the city's older part is becoming an afterthought. While she credits the city for upgrading Hartke Park in her neighborhood, she said many streets are in poor condition and more street lights are needed. The city also needs to do a better job with code enforcement by cracking down on people who run businesses out of their homes and homes in which several families live, she said.

City leaders contend some of those perceptions of the city not helping the older neighborhoods are inaccurate. They point to millions in expenditures that show a significant investment in the city's mature areas. The older neighborhoods are just as important as newer areas, they say, in part because deterioration there can spread to other parts of the community.

Councilman Robert Eliason, whose Ward 1 includes the mature areas east of Interstate 15, said many concerns about the city catering to newer areas are unfounded. Often, newer areas' public facilities and amenities -- parks and fire stations, for instance -- are built on land and with funds that the city required developers to donate.

"They are very concerned because they see the new areas getting this and getting that, but we didn't spent the money on that," Eliason said.

The city, he added, has addressed the needs of older areas by committing millions of dollars to rehabbing parks and reconstructing streets.

Developers are targeting vacant sites in older areas for neighborhood shopping centers that include restaurants and offices, including a $70 million project on land the city acquired from the Clark County School District. In a different project, homes also are expected to be built in the downtown area, Eliason said, noting that the city has spent more than $10 million on redevelopment property acquisitions.

"Redevelopment is the key to turn around the mature part. We have a lot of redevelopment going on in the next 18 months that rivals anything in the new part," Eliason said.

But overcoming the perception that newer parts of the city are benefitting at the expense of older neighborhoods has produced a push to change the power structure in North Las Vegas.

In the 2005 session, a group of state lawmakers representing North Las Vegas failed in a bid to change how the city's voters elect City Council members. They succeeded, however, in requiring that North Las Vegas place a measure on the November 2006 ballot that will determine whether voters continue to elect council members at-large -- citywide -- or within wards in which members would have to reside.

"The perception is that North Las Vegas is growing, and the political landscape needs to grow, too," said Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, an Eldorado resident. "I think the council has been challenged with the older versus the newer parts."

Council critics contend that the existing electoral system that allows residents in all four wards to vote on all council members gives undue influence to those who live in Aliante, Eldorado and other subdivisions built in the past 10 to 15 years.

Eliason's Ward 1, for example, accounted for only 16 percent of the nearly 8,000 votes cast in the June mayoral election. Thirty-three percent of the votes were cast in Councilwoman Stephanie Smith's Ward 3, which includes Aliante. Councilwoman Shari Buck's Ward 4, which also covers newer subdivisions like Eldorado, had 30 percent of the vote total, and Councilman William Robinson's Ward 2, which also includes mature areas, produced 21 percent of the vote total.

Eliason said the vote totals are down for his ward in comparison to others because of its predominantly Hispanic makeup and lack of registration among that community. The City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on realigning wards to ensure equal population in each, but wards can't legally be divided to ensure equivalent voting in wards.

Nonetheless, Eliason said he believes the political system works fine the way it is. Because Ward 1 residents vote for all council members, he points out, all four members must pay attention to issues throughout the city, rather than simply the area where they live.

"If you go to wards, council members will only care about their wards," Eliason said.

Supporters of the ward election plan contend that is exactly what is needed in North Las Vegas, because even council members who represent mature areas now realize the majority of their votes come from newer parts of the community.

Andres Ramirez, who lost a bid for mayor in June, said "perception is reality" when it comes to residents in mature areas of the city feeling slighted. They register and vote in lower numbers, he believes, because of the sense of hopelessless often found in lower-income areas.

"I think it is a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Ramirez, who lives between Eldorado and Aliante. "They feel neglected and less motivated (because) they are not getting anything. They think no one cares about them. A lot of people are proud to see the city grow, especially those who have lived there a long time. They see a lot of great stuff, but wish they had that in their neighborhood."

The existing system came under fire last spring when the city's library district moved ahead with plans for a $5.25 million library in Aliante -- the first full-service library to be built in 40 years. The move upset library patrons who have long been promised a full-service library on property donated at Alexander Road, west of Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The library board, which is comprised of council members, favored the Aliante site because of the developer donated land and money for books.

"This is one of the examples for the city's lack of balance for all of its citizens," said Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, a 28-year North Las Vegas resident. "They have catered to the new areas. The older areas have been neglected to provide services to the newer people coming in."

Collins said North Las Vegas should do a better job of providing services and amenities to all parts of the city because the municipal government has the highest tax rate in the region.

North Las Vegas officials counter that the mature areas of the city are being well served. In a 2004 city survey of citizens, 53 percent of those who responded said they receive good value for their taxes -- a point with which only 19 percent disagreed. (The city survey was sent to 1,200 households, and 275 were returned. The city says the survey has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.)

"I believe it is just a perception," City Manager Gregory Rose said. "I believe our capital improvement plan and annual operating budget show that an appropriate amount of resources are being spent in the mature areas. It is our intent to ensure we place resources throughout the community, regardless of new growth. We are addressing the needs of all of our citizens."

Despite having only 34 percent of North Las Vegas' population, the area south of Cheyenne Avenue, which has 51.5 percent of the major crimes, receives 54 percent of the city's police patrols.

The city also continues to use federal block grants and other funds for housing improvements worth several million dollars annually and is spending millions on street improvements, officials said.

And North Las Vegas recently opened its newest park, Desert Horizons, just north of Cheyenne Avenue, that will serve a mix of neighborhoods built from the early 1980s to the late 1990s.

Some older parts of the community south of Alexander Road, east of I-15, however, do not benefit from a tax on new home building that goes for constructing parks. Of $3.6 million projected to be raised this year citywide, only $36,000 will be spent in that downtown area.

Parks Director Mike Henley said the city makes up for that by pouring money into parks in that area from Bureau of land Management land sales. The city's parks department reports it has completed $2.1 million in park, pool and playground improvements in the mature areas and will spend another $14 million for renovations over the next five years.

Of North Las Vegas' 32 park and pool facilities, 14 are south of Cheyenne Avenue. The 37-acre Cheyenne Sports Complex is just north of Cheyenne, east of I-15.

"I think it is a pretty impressive list, and we are proud of it," Henley said. "We have done an outstanding job of revitalization in the older versus the newer part of the community, and that was not always the case."

Eliason, who grew up in North Las Vegas, said by walking through neighborhoods and talking with residents that they view North Las Vegas as one city and not one that's divided because of the new development.

On Wednesday, the Bureau of Land Management will auction more than than 2,600 acres in North Las Vegas to create a new master-planned community, and Eliason said that will only make the city better.

"We are one city, and our citizens are comfortable where they live," Eliason said.

"I believe our image has changed as we got Eldorado and Aliante. Green Valley and Anthem helped Hendersons image, and as a kid here, we had the same type of reputation. But I think its on its way out."

Brian Wargo can be reached at (702) 259-4011 or at [email protected]