Saturday, July 21, 2012 | 2 a.m.
At 7 a.m. on a Saturday, while most Las Vegans are still fast asleep, developer Arnold Stalk and his 9-year-old son, Jacob, are pulling on gardening gloves and priming paint brushes.
The pair was among the 125 residents, ranging from grade school students to seniors, who volunteered last weekend to refurbish the dilapidated courtyard of downtown’s Las Vegas Academy. The event was the second day of service organized by Downtown Cares Las Vegas, a grassroots effort led by area residents and businesses that’s part of the growing community momentum to help uplift downtown.
After just four hours of work, the group had transformed the chipping paint, wilted plants and graffitied benches of the courtyard into an inviting common space that glows with fresh coats of turquoise and sienna paint and robust young shrubs filling its planters.
“It’s a really special time for downtown, it’s becoming the soul of the Las Vegas community,” says Miles Dickson, principle of community development firm Moonridge Group, which spearheaded the Downtown Cares project with El Cortez.
“For a while, it was just this emerging cool scene, but now it’s very apparent that people are starting to embrace it as a real neighborhood, not just a bar and gaming district,” Dickson says.
The school cleanup is the second volunteer event organized by Downtown Cares; the first, a renovation of the Robert Gordon Plaza senior living facility last November, was intended to be a one-time event. However, community response was so strong that Dickson, along with El Cortez Executive Manager Alexandra Epstein, were inspired to transform Downtown Cares into a regular event. To raise money for last Saturday’s cleanup, Epstein and Dickson organized a downtown bar crawl in March, which brought in $1,600. Local businesses, including Jaramillo Landscaping and Zappos, donated supplies and food for the event.
“These days of service have proved that when people get a chance to do something (for downtown), they’re all over it,” Epstein says. “You have everyone from families to businesses to alumni out here. It comes down to neighbors supporting neighbors.”
Downtown Cares has another project in the works for September, this time for turnaround school Halle Hewetson Elementary. The organization is looking to organize about 400 volunteers for the event, but Epstein hopes the turnout will be close to a thousand, as it will be open to the entire city.
It’s an ambitious estimate, but if the enthusiasm of the group at Las Vegas Academy is any indication, it’s not unrealistic.
“Events like these are a good way to affect a lot of students in a short amount of time — they had no place to sit before,” Stalk says as he and his son sit down for lunch. But he’s also quick to note that infrastructure problems like the ones facing Las Vegas Academy go beyond downtown’s schools.
“The focus is on downtown right now, but you see the same problems all over the valley,” he says. “People are starting to realize that these projects are great, but there are other areas that need help, like the homeless corridor, the veterans community, the senior population.”
That’s where Stalk himself steps in, drawing on 36 years of experience with community-minded urban planning and development.
This Tuesday, he’ll help open the Veterans Village of Las Vegas, a new comprehensive housing project in downtown that was retrofitted and refurbished from an Econo Lodge motel. The home, developed from public and private collaborative partnerships, will offer U.S. veterans services including education and degree programs, medical services, mental health counseling and more. A ribbon cutting and opening ceremony will be held from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesday and will feature guest speakers Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Councilman Bob Coffin and Rick and Kelly Dale of the History Channel series “American Restoration.”