As economic indicators continue to paint a less than rosy picture of the financial health of the Silver State, public and private movers and shakers remain steadfastly committed to the future development and redevelopment of Nevada’s downtowns. With an unemployment rate of more than 14 percent and with 65 percent of its mortgaged homes underwater, according to recent figures provided by CoreLogic, Nevada is betting on the revival of its eclectic downtown areas to provide much needed boosts to local economies. “Older neighborhoods are the hearts and souls of towns,” explains Rita Brandin, senior vice president and development director for Newland Real Estate Group in Las Vegas.
Although the revival of downtown districts has played some part in economic development over the years, in some communities it was somewhat overshadowed (at least until just recently) by the large numbers of new projects that gobbled up raw suburban land in the building frenzy that petered out around 2007. With budget belts tightening all across the state, some downtown projects experienced delays when economic uncertainty gripped both government and private industry. Now, many months into the recession, economic development/redevelopment teams are placing increased focus on the value of vibrant, productive and exciting city cores as they seek to re-energize and redefine neighborhoods that might have fallen victim to the “broken window syndrome” caused by suburban sprawl. Projects underway are being carefully nurtured to completion while those that might have been delayed are being nudged more quickly into the pipeline. New proposals receive careful and expedient consideration which helps energize the momentum when projects come online. “We’ve had long-time strategies to develop downtown,” explains Bill Arent, director of economic and urban development for the City of Las Vegas. “We’re sticking to our guns.”
With the demise of the free-wheeling easy credit that fueled the building boom not so many years ago, public-private partnerships have risen in stature as one of the most reliable sources of funding development. “With the real estate environment today, it’s hard to get a single developer coming in to do a large project,” Brandin says. “The lending requirements won’t support it.” Aside from the fact that it avoids dealing with traditional lending institutions, this type of partnership can spread the risk around, resulting in a welcome win-win situation for both parties depending upon how it’s structured.
“You need a progressive forward thinking government to assist in private enterprise success at all levels,” explains Brian Egan, owner of Egan Commercial Real Estate in Reno. “It takes government because it’s the voice of the people.” Typically, the government entity provides land and infrastructure while hiring a developer to oversee the project and secure third-party development agreements. “We’ve learned a whole new way of operating,” Brandin says.
To further boost the attractiveness of investing in downtowns, most redevelopment agencies have initiated changes to streamline the processes that in prior years have been challenging, to say the least, to many developers. “We’ve had a fundamental review of the design/review process to make sure that we are customer-friendly,” Arent says. Although fast-tracking has replaced a lot of the frustrating stagnation of just a few years ago, public developers say that precision has not been sacrificed.
“We look at everything to make sure they have set themselves up for success,” explains Michelle Romero, redevelopment manager for the City of Henderson. In addition, agencies have come up with a variety of incentives, many of which are focused on small to medium-size businesses, that will assist them in the initial startup phase. “Smaller businesses need just a little extra push so we have waived some business fees,” Arent says. Other inducements include up to $95,000 for façade improvements and neon signage for the Fremont East District in Las Vegas, for example.
Downtown Las Vegas
Although many cities older than Las Vegas grew up around a downtown core, Las Vegas experienced a large percentage of its growth along The Strip and into outlying areas. “Downtown has been in its infancy for many years,” Brandin says. Development in the city core is expected to help Las Vegas mature to resemble many other cities of similar size. “We [downtown development] don’t aspire to be The Strip. These are the pieces needed in our community of two million,” Arent explains.
Development includes a mix of projects in various stages of completion, such as the World Market Center Las Vegas, the World Jewelry Center, Symphony Park, the Neon Museum, the new City Hall Building, the relocation of Zappos and the Mob Museum. Also significant to the rejuvenation of downtown is the cluster of institutions along the Cultural Corridor that includes the Las Vegas Library, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum. Equally vital to the health of downtown is the eclectic blend of one-of-a-kind businesses that line the streets of 18b, the 18-plus blocks of the original arts district. “Small businesses are incredibly important,” Arent says. “Small businesses create 80 percent of the jobs in the country.”
Encompassing around 10 million square feet, Symphony Park is a distinct mix of projects destined to become a modern-day city neighborhood as well as the cultural center of Southern Nevada. A public-private development between the City of Las Vegas and Newland Real Estate Group, the sustainable community is anchored by The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Designed as a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use urban center, Symphony Park will also include space devoted to residential, office, retail, hotel and gaming development in addition to its two anchors. When complete, the project is expected to provide nearly $21 million in annual tax revenues to the City of Las Vegas.
Housed in a facility designed by architect, Frank Gehry, the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health was founded by Larry Ruvo, in memory of his father, Lou, who died in 1994 of Alzheimer’s disease. The center has already attracted internationally recognized medical personnel as well as patients from all over the world since its opening in 2009. “The epicenter for this disease (Alzheimer’s) will be in Las Vegas,” Larry Ruvo says, adding that he expects the city to benefit from the probable medical tourism that will result. “What better place to come for a wellness checkup?” he asks.
Ruvo credits Mayor Oscar Goodman for convincing him to locate the center as the gateway to Symphony Park. “I loved the location and the proximity to the center of Las Vegas,” he says. Passionate about fighting a disease that affects more than five million Americans, Ruvo decided to locate the center in Las Vegas because previously Nevada didn’t have high quality care available for people afflicted with memory impairments and dementia. “I love this city and my parents taught me to give back,” he says.
Housed in three stately limestone buildings designed by architect David M. Schwarz, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts is poised to deliver a world-class performing facility focused on the needs of the surrounding community when it opens its doors next spring. The center will provide a resident performance home for the Nevada Ballet Theatre and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. The project boasts the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall, the 300-seat cabaret theater and the 200-seat studio theater.
Together with Clark County’s School District and Cultural Division, the Smith Center will offer a wide variety of performances, workshops and classes for area students while participating in the John F. Kennedy Center Partners in Education Program. As a public-private partnership, the $470-million complex has been funded by donations from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation as well as monies secured through Clark County, Las Vegas and the Nevada State Legislature. The Center has also received donations from community businesses, including the law firm of Lewis & Roca, who is the first corporate sponsor, having donated $500,000. The Center is named after Fred W. Smith, Reynolds chairman, and his wife, Mary.
Acting as the economic development arm for the city since 1983, the Reno Redevelopment Agency has provided expertise and incentives for significant downtown projects that include the Reno Events Center, Reno City Hall, the ReTRAC Project, the Truckee River Whitewater Park at Wingfield, the Reno Aces Ballpark, the Raymond I. Smith Truckee River Walk, the Riverside Artist Lofts and the West Street Market. Since the recession hit several years ago, however, the construction cranes in downtown have disappeared and the agency has shrunk to a fraction of what it used to be.
Although large projects appear to be a thing of the past due to financing difficulties, downtown Reno continues to morph, but at a somewhat different pace. “We’re going to keep filling in,” Egan says. The variety of new arrivals in downtown includes small to medium-size projects such as Men Wielding Fire, a barbeque restaurant; MyNewPlace, an online rental agency; the YMCA of the Sierras; and the Nevada Discovery Museum for children. Joining the eclectic array of small nightclubs that pepper the area, the Knitting Factory (known as The Knit) has enjoyed great success in bringing live entertainment to young adults in the area. Into its third season, the Reno Aces Ballpark continues to enjoy huge popularity with both locals and tourists, especially with the addition of the new restaurants and entertainment venues in the surrounding Freight House District.
Unfortunately, projects such as West Street Market, The Montage and the Belvedere were caught in the economic squeeze and have struggled for several years to maintain viability. Hopes are high, however, that the makeover of the closed Fitzgeralds Casino/Hotel (that will include the world’s largest rock-climbing wall) will bring new energy to downtown. “Everybody is pretty gung-ho about it. They have taken away the gaming and it will be nonsmoking and pet-friendly,” Egan says.
For Melissa Molyneaux, senior associate for office properties at Colliers International in Reno, the name of the downtown game is office space. Although the large amount of new office construction sucked tenants from downtown to the suburbs a few years ago, Molyneaux says there is renewed interest in being downtown once again. “People want to be downtown,” she says. “It’s a role reversal back to downtown from the suburbs.” With many downtown office structures showing their age, however, property owners are having to spruce them up to make them attractive for their tenants. “We’re seeing developers putting money in their office buildings. Most of it is for aesthetics to give a fresh look. Your office is a reflection of you and your business,” she explains.
As a Nevadan that grew up near downtown Henderson, Romero was disappointed to see the heart of her hometown deteriorate when businesses moved to the suburbs over the years. “When I was growing up the businesses were quite old. It has a lot of emotional ties for me,” she says. In her job as redevelopment manager, however, she has the opportunity to help craft the revival of those neighborhoods. “It’s exciting to see the new developments and to see older buildings get a facelift,” she says.
In forming the City of Henderson Redevelopment Agency in 1985, the city embraced the need to revitalize some of its older neighborhoods and to reclaim unused areas, such as mines and gravel pits, for other uses. The five redevelopment areas managed by the agency are Cornerstone, Downtown, Eastside, Lakemoor Canyon and Tuscany. The success of the city’s efforts is partially shown by the fact that the assessed valuations of the five redevelopment areas increased 287 percent over the past five years during a time when most property values around the country plummeted. The city has attracted investment into redevelopment zones with public-private partnerships, grants and loans and infrastructure improvements that make the areas safer as well as more attractive. Romero is careful to emphasize that responsibility is shared by private and public entities. “We don’t want people to mistake it for a handout. Henderson requires performance,” she says.
With its wide range of options that include office, entertainment, residential and retail redevelopment, the Water Street District is the shining star of downtown redevelopment. “The Water Street District has gone very well,” Romero says. “We’ve created excitement and investment.” As a city within a city, the Water Street District is well on its way to providing all the amenities needed for an upbeat urban lifestyle, from trendy shops, restaurants and entertainment to professional services and residential choices. “Our goal has always been to be unique and different. We don’t want to be cookie cutter,” Romero says. “Our focus has been on home grown personalized businesses.”
Entertainment centers around the Henderson Events Plaza Amphitheater which draws tens of thousands of people throughout the year with a variety of concerts and performances. The district also draws big crowds for its special events which include the annual ArtFest and SuperRun along with the monthly ARTsWALK event. “We have everything. We’re a very strong community,” Romero says.
Downtown Carson City
Although the Carson City Center Project for downtown Carson City has been in the planning stages through many months of studies, meetings and workshops, the seeming delay during the past few years has been a good thing, according to Joe McCarthy, director of the Office of Business Development for Carson City. “It allowed the community to analyze and review the details before commitment,” he explains. “The elected officials are being prudent and cautious.” Taking the time to air public concerns has probably worked in favor of the project since it has been considered controversial by some due to the increased debt and sales tax hike that can result from it. The project is now in the design development agreement phase, with groundbreaking possible as early as the fall, if all goes well, according to McCarthy.
Situated on six acres around the Carson City Nugget in the heart of downtown, the $84.2-million project will include a Knowledge and Discovery Library, business incubator, outdoor plaza, public transit hub, digital media lab, parking structure, entertainment venue and hotel along with retail, office and residential space. Private investment will be $52.3 million and public monies will be $31.9 million. Projected revenues that could support the public portion in a worst case scenario would include a sales tax increase of l/8 cent, $1.2 million from the Carson City general fund and $500,000 from redevelopment funds. “It’s created quite a stir in the community,” McCarthy says.
Other targeted development in Carson Center focuses around the construction of the I-580 Freeway which is expected to encircle the town upon completion by 2014. Although the second phase has already routed a large percentage of cars around the immediate downtown area, developers say they need to be able to observe and study the entire route before undertaking other development projects. “We have to have a complete handle on the traffic impact. We need to know how cars are routing around the community,” McCarthy explains. Included so far in the plan to upgrade certain areas is a $10-15 million dollar facelift with wider sidewalks, better lighting and more efficient signage to make the community more pedestrian-friendly.
Along with the revitalization plans, McCarthy also believes that Carson City needs to provide greater support to its cultural venues, events and groups, such as the Brewery Arts Center, Sierra Nevada Ballet and the Carson City Symphony. “All of these great users are putting on their productions in less than quality places,” he says. “Our next challenge is to the great art and culture groups that deserve better spaces.”