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After messy launch, Clark County, business owners look to future of Commercial Center

Kristen DeSilva

Commercial Center today is far cry from its historic beginnings.

The massive outdoor strip mall, just west of Maryland Parkway and Sahara Boulevard, was called the “downtown of tomorrow” when it was built.

It was the place to be in the 1960s and '70s. Its skating rink played host to influential bands like the Doors and Led Zeppelin.

But over time, the property got worn down. Businesses move in and out. Recently, though, it’s seen something of a mini-renaissance as artists and other businesses who want less expensive rents have started to move in.

And it appears, Clark County, which owns the 18-acre parking lot, wanted to speed things up. Commercial Center is zoned for redevelopment, and county commissioners organized an event there a week ago to draw potential investors.

It was to be a block party for businesses there, for downtown residents. It featured food trucks, vendors, big time DJ and music producer Deadmau5. It also had a VIP tent for potential investors.

But many now say it did not turn out well, that it cost some of the business operators money. And as originally reported by KSNV, Nancy Good, local artist and owner of Core Contemporary Art Gallery at Commercial Center, had email exchanges with Clark County Commissioners Tick Segerblom and Ross Miller, the officials behind the event, and after the emails came out, it put the county commissioners on the public hot seat.

Kristen DeSilva
Kristen DeSilva

Miller, who co-promoted the event with Segerblom, previously agreed to join Nevada Public Radio on Thursday, but his office called saying he was having "an emergency at home with one of his pets," and he would be unable to join us.

The block party was messy. More importantly, it has businesses operating in Commercial Center scared of their present and future.

KNPR attended the event and upon speaking to business owners, the overall attitude was that the communication leading up to the block party was too short notice and confusing. The fencing set up for the event caused headaches, as it blocked off many attendees' view of the businesses in Commercial Center and dissuaded potential business.

One business, the Avant Pop Bookstore in New Orleans Square, claimed they lost too many sales because of the event, and had one of their vehicles vandalized. They held an online fundraiser for $5,000, to which Segerblom contributed $1,000.

Segerblom stressed that pushing local businesses out is not the county's goal.

"The goal is to be like Nashville where you can walk from place to place, no cover charge, different bands, different things happening, along with small things like art studios," said Segerblom. "But at the end of the day, we don't want to gentrify it and push people out. We're not trying to destroy Commercial Center, we're trying to save it."

Segerblom also gave details on what Clark County has in mind for the revitalization:

"We want to use this as the center, and then to the east and the west, where all those apartments that are dangerous; or to the east, where we have all that vacant land, that's where the development would be," said Segerblom.

"So we would keep Commercial Center as the arts focus for Las Vegas history. Also, to the north of the Sahara is the city's redevelopment area. We're going to enter into a [memorandum of understanding] with them so we can work together on redeveloping. If we work with the city, we can go out there and say, 'Look, if you want to come in, you can build on this side, then on this side, here's what we're gonna do, so you don't have to duplicate it.' We can build bridges over the area ... I mean, it's phenomenal the potential we have there, but the bones are not perfect. We need to invest some public money, we have redevelopment money; we're planning to do that."

Good has been a vocal critic of the county's organization of the block party event, but said they ultimately want the same thing.

"Everybody can have a bad day. Because I'm 62 years old, I've seen a lot of life. And I've seen a lot of things where people have good intentions. But maybe things happen that the good doesn't always come through," said Good.

"And not to say that we didn't have great results from this event. I think I called my email 'A Tale of Two Events' because there were some negative aspects, experiences, but also there's good and, yes, we've got a lot of attention. I don't have animosity for a negative reaction. I know [the county] worked really hard, and it's bloody hot outside, [the commissioners] were outside working on the parking lot. It's not conducive for a lot of event building and problem solving on the fly. I'm very grateful that [Segerblom is with] us this morning, and that we can have these conversations, and I hope they continue."

Segerblom was met with negative reaction upon calling the businesses in Commercial Center "ungrateful miscreants" in the email exchanges between Miller and Good.

Segerblom followed Good's comments on State of Nevada with an apology.

"Forgive me, let's go forward. The opportunity, is there," said Segerblom, "One of the comments was, we should have a debriefing. I would love to do that, go to Nancy's studio or somewhere like that, where we can all get together. Our goal is to promote, we don't want to gentrify this, we don't want to push out people that came out of the arts district and found a place that they could love and afford."

Segerblom mentioned the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas, which has gone through its own form of revitalization, and it took years to manifest. However, one of the consequences of the revitalization in downtown Las Vegas was higher rents. The lease rates in Commercial Center remain relatively affordable, and it's part of the reason many businesses like Good's art gallery opened shop there.

"We want to promote these small individuals," said Segerblom. "My father was an artist, and photographer. He couldn't afford to pay rent, because you don't make a lot of money as an artist or photographer, so I know hard it is. I appreciate what they're trying to do. So I cannot say enough, as far as apologies. But, if you're willing to work with me ... I'm telling you we're going to make this so much better for all of us."

Good also extended a hand out to Miller who replied to her original emails with "I'd hate for government to be the anchor that holds back the revitalization of the area. Perhaps there are better uses for our county tax dollars."

"I don't hold animosity," said Good. "I know there were a lot of things that were not appropriate that were said to various businesses. But again, heat of the moment; bad days, we all react in different ways based on the pressures that we're facing."

James P. Reza, a contributor to Desert Companion magazine and longtime Las Vegas culture writer, also joined the panel and he spoke about the importance of communication. The block party and local business fiasco reminds him of his own struggles with the City of Las Vegas as an independent business owner of two local beauty salons.

"I think the overarching theme here is that communication is very important. You guys have communicated here in the studio and we sort of mended some fences; but as a downtown business owner since 2008, I had to fight long and hard with the city to get advanced notifications of street closures, and parades," said Reza.

He continued, "My business happens to be at ground zero for a parade staging area. And still to this day, we don't get communicated with as well as we'd like to, in order to prepare for the implications of having an amazing event such as the Helldorado parade stage right outside our doors. The reality is that with promotion and exposure comes disruption. I think that with a little more planning and communication from the top down, businesses can actually choose how they're going to respond. Tenants such as art galleries, retail stores, or restaurants would like to have the opportunity to participate in events rather than be shut out of them by default, because they just show up to work one day and there's a fence around them. And I'm not saying that's what happened with Commercial Center, but I think communication from government to to its constituency is very important. I think a little bit that was lost in this situation."

Reza has also lived in Las Vegas for decades, and remembers the Commercial Center since childhood. He noted he's not alone and the impact of Commercial Center is significant.

"There's not a lot of physical history left in Las Vegas, and I think a lot of people have connection to the businesses that were there," said Reza. "I mean, I put the word out on my Twitter about doing this show and the number of businesses that people remember visiting over the years from Vegas Village, Von Tobel's Hardware Store, John Fish Jewelers, Ice Palace, places like that I could just list all day long. When it opened, the intention was not to replace downtown, but they did tout it as having more square footage for retail than all of downtown combined. So it really was the center of town and the center of commerce for maybe 10 to 20 years. And I think people who grew up here or who have been here a long time connect with that, because commerce really is a part of your experience of living in a city."

Reza also suggested a way that locals and even tourists could learn or brush up on the importance of Commercial Center as a piece of Las Vegas history.

"An interesting idea would be, because we've lost this opportunity Downtown, it could be recreated since [the Commercial Center] is tied together in just one big piece; to maybe get with the University of Nevada Las Vegas Special Collections, and Clark County to fund an exhibit of the history of commercial centers so these things that we're talking about, people can see why it's important. There's gallery space there, let's make it happen."

Guests: Tick Segerblom, Clark County Commissioner, District E; James P. Reza, freelance writer, Desert Companion contributor; Nancy Good; artist and owner, Core Contemporary Fine Art Gallery

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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.