Tuesday, July 26, 2011 | 2 a.m.
If it seems a little uglier on the Strip these days, don’t blame plump tourists stuffed into Spandex and Hawaiian shirts, or the fleshy advertisements everywhere you look.
The YouTube video of a Los Angeles tourist punching a costumed superhero strolling the Strip a few months back caught everyone’s eye. That was ugly. But it’s more than that. Somehow and very quickly, not only are costumed characters multiplying, but people peddling bottles of water — and in some cases, beer — are popping up everywhere, homeless people are hanging out on pedestrian bridges, card slappers are still soliciting customers for nearly naked women and folks are selling trinkets of all sorts, sometimes forcing pedestrians onto the roadway.
One Clark County commissioner says enough is enough, and suggests as a possible solution the creation of a tax district to help pay for more law enforcement along the Strip. The issue may be discussed when the commission meets Aug. 2.
Lt. John McGrath of Metro Police’s Convention Center Area Command said the department has enough officers on the Strip to make it safe; the three recent violent deaths — two from stabbings, one from a punch — were anomalies at a time of double-digit declines in violent crime. But, he says, officers are challenged by the proliferation of something more prosaic: unlicensed sales of water, CDs, T-shirts, even beer from coolers. Police have cited and in some cases arrested repeat offenders but have struggled to make a dent on the scene.
Officers, he said, call it “disorder.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous, but it’s more than a nuisance,” McGrath said.
Commissioner Steve Sisolak says the goings-on along the Strip are so off-putting to many tourists that casinos may be feeling the effects. From illegal vendors to handbillers to the generally unkempt feel he got during a recent stroll on the Strip, he said something has to be done.
“It’s dirty, the ground is actually dirty,” he said. “They need to spray off those sidewalks. You’ve got dozens of people selling water, scores of characters in costumes asking for a donation to take a picture with them and hundreds of card-flippers, then guys with megaphones handing out pamphlets,” he said.
“The sidewalks are getting blocked with this stuff,” Sisolak added. “I’m an advocate of free speech, but you can have reasonable time-place restrictions, too.”
Only adding to his uneasy feeling are the monolithic heaps left in the wake of the economic meltdown of the past few years — iron lattice exposed on the incomplete Echelon complex, the empty Fontainebleau tower, and fences around other unfinished projects.
“This is the most valuable part of our economy, all within a four-to-five-mile stretch, and we’ve got to do what we can to make it a pleasant experience,” Sisolak added. The Strip went through a period of adult-Disneyfication in the 1990s but now, the commissioner added, “I wouldn’t have a safe feeling if I took a child out there.”
Sisolak, vice chairman of the County Commission, has met with casino representatives whom, he says, seem to support his proposal to form a committee of resort owners, with support from various county agencies, to analyze Strip issues and develop a plan to address them. He also wants Metro Police involved as well as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The County Commission is likely to talk about his idea at its next meeting Aug. 2. Among his suggestions: creating a taxing district to generate money to pay for additional enforcement officers.
Commissioner Tom Collins, who also serves as chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, agrees with Sisolak that the Strip sidewalk scene may need attention, but says it reflects a cyclical problem that surfaces during rough economic times.
“When you’ve got an economy like we do, there’s a lot more people, not just on the Strip but everywhere, hustling a little bit, panhandling a little bit,” he said. “A guy’s out of work, he has a Halloween costume, and now he’s trying to sell pictures (of himself in costume with a tourist) on the Strip.”
That said, he also believes much of the problem stems from the handbillers or card-slappers, whose right to distribute material has been upheld in court.
“But where is the balance between free speech versus the efforts of this community to be successful?” Collins added. “We could make that place cleaner and nicer if we weren’t sued by the ACLU all the time.”
Allen Lichtenstein, ACLU of Nevada general counsel, said plenty of case law has been created supporting the free-speech rights of handbillers. “They are protected in the same way that religious organizations are protected, or students who want to demonstrate against budget cuts are protected. You can’t pick and choose who is and isn’t protected.”
Lichtenstein said Metro, in the past two months, has come forward to talk to the ACLU about the issues, realizing that another lawsuit is not the answer. What’s becoming clear, he added, is that the handbillers — who are clumped in one area, causing crowding problems — can work anywhere up and down the Strip.
“People seemed to think they had to all be in certain areas,” he said, adding that just spreading them out might alleviate at least one of the issues Sisolak wants to address.
As for the other issues, the illegal vendors being a big one, those may take more time.
“There’s not a simple solution,” McGrath admitted. “It took a few years to get to this point and it’s going to take time to get it back to where it was.”