Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2014

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New hope for the old sections of North Las Vegas

Frank Esparza is going blind. But he can see the progress - and the lack of it - in North Las Vegas.

The 66-year-old has lived in the old part of town for decades. It's a place where neighborhoods can alternate from rundown to working class from street to street, or lot to lot.

As the state's first bilingual social worker, he has known these neighborhoods for generations. Sadly, he said during a drive around North Las Vegas, not much has changed in many spots.

"It's beautiful what's happened to our city," Esparza said. "Unfortunately, a lot of the change has come in the new development areas. The downtown is mostly the same. There are places where there hasn't been anything happening since 35 years ago , when I first came here."

Redevelopment plans have come and gone for decades.

Esparza served on the city planning commission in the early 1990s, helping to develop plans for in-fill lots and working toward drawing commerce to some of the more beleaguered neighborhoods.

It never happened.

But now the city has a new plan.

This time, Esparza and others believe, it will succeed in part because there is more than hope behind that belief.

The 40 Block project is designed to revitalize an area characterized by vacant lots and substandard apartment complexes. In 2001 eight killings occurred in the 1 square mile bound by Cartier Street, Martin Luther King Boulevard, Comstock Street and Lake Mead Parkway.

Not surprisingly, it has been tough to draw merchants to the area, named for the 40-ounce malt liquor bottles that gangs used to leave along the sidewalks.

There is only one business - a gas station on busy Martin Luther King - in the area, a section of the country's second-fastest growing city.

North Las Vegas is spending about $2.5 million in local and federal money to start the project. It also has the backing of banks offering low-interest loans to potential home buyers and nonprofit groups, including Habitat for Humanity, which owns a few houses near Carey Street.

There are loose plans to build a neighborhood resource center, a place for residents to easily contact city officials with concerns and to get information about various programs. And there are many ideas on how to revitalize the area. Already the city has used new nuisance ordinances to try to get rid of late-night noise and abandoned vehicles.

Kenny Young, senior assistant to the city manager, said a transformation would cost $10 million and take at least five years. And that's for just a small section of the old part of town.

On Las Vegas Boulevard alone there are at least three large parcels of vacant property within two miles of the city limits at Owens Street. There are two more vacant lots near the Silver Nugget.

Some see the empty land - neighboring what may eventually be the site of North Las Vegas' planned $135 million City Hall - as potential keys to downtown redevelopment.

Now, however, the lots are frequent resting places for vagrants.

If the plan succeeds, it could bring a taste of the growth and attractive development seen elsewhere in North Las Vegas, where master-planned communities spawn schools, parks and libraries.

Progress has come slower in the city's older sections.

In September the Nevada Bankers Collaborative, which represents every Southern Nevada bank, chose to support the 40 Block project over other government-driven initiatives in the valley.

According to a memo from Young to City Manager Gregory Rose, "the main reason for their participation ... resulted from the concerns of several local developers and nonprofit agencies that stated that they were noticing a lot of money being spent, but no real results."

Nothing has happened yet.

The bankers group did not return phone calls from the Sun.

In the meantime, Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, has proposed a bill that would give a state-appointed board control over redevelopment of part of the city between Cheyenne Avenue and Carey Street.

The bill would require the city to develop a detailed infrastructure improvement program for its older and poorer neighborhoods by the end of 2008. Roads, public safety services, business development and community facilities would be included.

North Las Vegas leaders vehemently oppose the bill, saying it would set a precedent of the city answering to the state.

Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, wants to see simpler measures.

When the city passed a nuisance ordinance in March, he said many Hispanics had no idea such a law was being created - despite several neighborhood meetings and the item being on at least a half-dozen City Council agendas.

Romero, saying many Hispanics are unaware of the meetings, proposes putting fliers for the meetings at Hispanic markets and in El Mundo, a Spanish-language newspaper.

"It would be a big step," Romero said. "It would at least inform us. I want to see the effort. I want the onus placed on City Council to reach out to us. I want the onus placed on us to get involved."

About 40 percent of North Las Vegas' 200,000 residents are Hispanic. Yet their political involvement is low. There are no Hispanic council members or planning commissioners. No Hispanic ran in the most recent city elections. In 2005 Andres Ramirez lost in his bid to become mayor. He is now the outreach director for the state Democratic Party.

"Most people's roots are not as deep as they should be," Romero said. "And in essence the community has not been invited to partake in politics. You've got to open the doors and hold them open."

Young is going to try to do that with 40 Block through planned meetings to reach out to the neighborhood. The 40 Block area is evenly split among whites, blacks and Hispanics.

"We need people to identify more as a neighborhood," Young said.

With luck, 40 Block could be the start.

Sun reporter Phoebe Sweet contributed to this story.

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