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September 22, 2014

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NLV confronting morality issues

In a state that, for better or worse, historically has embraced the racier sides of life, North Las Vegas is looking at perhaps veering in the opposite direction, a shift that could leave the city looking less like Sin City and more like Utah.

Proposed ballot measures expected to go before voters in November will ask residents to take a stand on a handful of issues with strong moral overtones - in particular, whether they favor allowing strip clubs, adult movie theaters and adult bookstores in North Las Vegas.

While the votes would be advisory only - with each issue voted on separately - the ballot questions' approval en masse could create a kind of moral compass to guide this and future city councils away from the region's risque reputation toward a more freshly scrubbed, family-friendly image.

"It is part of the demographic changes of the whole city," UNLV history professor Gene Moehring said of North Las Vegas. "They are trying to change the image of the town to be more like Summerlin and Green Valley. And when you throw in the corruption associated with strip clubs, it makes sense to limit and regulate them."

UNLV history professor Hal Rothman, saying this is the first time he can recall an urban community looking to voters as a means to possibly crack down on adult businesses in the Las Vegas Valley, called it a case of North Las Vegas officials seeking to upgrade the community economically and socially.

"Like Henderson once, North Las Vegas still operates with a stigma," Rothman said. "I think they have come a remarkably long way in getting rid of it, but it is a hard thing to change."

North Las Vegas has experienced explosive growth that has seen its population more than triple within 15 years, from 47,707 in 1990 to 178,166 in the latest estimate last July. While master-planned communities such as Aliante and Eldorado along the Las Vegas Beltway have helped to lift the community's image, North Las Vegas - especially its older neighborhoods south of Cheyenne Avenue - still is better known to many valley residents as an area riddled with high crime and low-income housing.

The City Council also will consider placing a similar question on the November ballot asking about possible limits on pawn shops and payday loan stores, such as caps based on population.

Two weeks ago, North Las Vegas banned the use of payday loans and pawn shops under a development agreement for a 2,600-acre master-planned community. The city also recently joined Clark County, Henderson and Las Vegas in establishing distance requirements governing how close its 21 existing payday loan stores may be to each other and homes.

North Las Vegas' consideration of further possible regulation of adult businesses comes two months after the council approved the transfer of a license to the new owner of three strip clubs now in the city. The city's existing zoning allows the three clubs - including the Palomino Club, the region's only totally nude club that sells alcohol - to operate through 2019.

The strip industry has drawn heightened scrutiny with the bribery convictions this month of two former Clark County commissioners who received payments by former strip club owner Michael Galardi, allegedly in exchange for favorable treatment of Galardi's club.

It is against that backdrop that North Las Vegas is eyeing further restrictions on adult businesses in the hope of changing the city's image in ways that potentially could lure upper middle-class residents to its new master-planned communities, Moehring said.

While Las Vegas' image is one of a place where "most everything is legal," the suburbs do not want to be seen the same way, he said.

Assuming the City Council decides Wednesday to place the questions on the ballot, the fall votes would give city officials guidance on whether the existing strip club uses should be extended beyond 2019, City Manager Gregory Rose said. It also would provide guidance on whether North Las Vegas should further tighten its ordinances to make it more difficult for various adult businesses to operate in the community, he said.

"As North Las Vegas grows and the downtown is redeveloped, especially near the Strip, there is the potential more adult businesses will want to be in that area," Rose said. "We are trying to get a sense of what the public thinks."

There are no adult bookstores or movie theaters in North Las Vegas even though they are allowed under the city's codes. Under state law, North Las Vegas cannot ban the adult businesses, only restrict their locations as it does now, City Attorney Sean McGowan said.

The ballot questions dealing with adult businesses already are stirring up interest within the religious community.

Ralph Williamson, pastor of the First AME Church in North Las Vegas, said he does not want any more adult businesses in the community and opposes extension of the licenses for the three strip clubs.

"We can't afford to have those kinds of stores, movie theaters and businesses that degrade our community," Williamson said. "It doesn't do anything to benefit us. It tears down the moral fabric of a community and is not conducive for a healthy family environment. We need to have it so far away from us that it doesn't affect us."

North Las Vegas' three strip clubs, located side by side on Las Vegas Boulevard North, are owned and operated by Adam Gentile. He leases the property from his father, Las Vegas lawyer Dominic Gentile, who acquired the nearly five acres on which the clubs are situated from a former client, Luis Hidalgo Jr., to pay off legal fees.

Adam Gentile said he has no problem with the push to restrict adult businesses, so long as his clubs are not targeted for early closure.

"Certain people in our industry have done everything wrong and some people have given us all a bad name by taking short cuts instead of doing it the right way," Gentile said. "I think with all the recent political problems with Galardi, that gives us a bad reputation."

Dominic Gentile said he is surprised that North Las Vegas officials have cited a possible extension of the strip club use on his property as a reason for this fall's ballot measure. Noting that the property is zoned for a resort and casino, Gentile said he intends to pursue that use in the future.

"I have no plans to be the landlord for strip clubs in perpetuity," Gentile said. "I was attracted to the zoning. I am a big booster of the redevelopment of North Las Vegas and would love to see that property use as it's planned."

Gentile said he understands the city wanting to pursue even tougher ordinances.

"With all the neighborhoods anticipated and more people moving in on the horizon, there will be a push to open more (strip clubs)," Gentile said. "It makes sense for them to do something now."

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