Trouble in Paradise?

Three summers after opening, the Springs Preserve is trying again to attract crowds

If the Las Vegas Springs Preserve were a lesser attraction it would be easy to criticize. But by almost any measure, it is a first-rate amenity. Its grounds are beautifully landscaped, its LEED Platinum-certified architecture is handsome. Its interactive central museum, the ORIGEN Experience, which recounts the natural history of the region, is the best in town. There are trails, wetlands with 265 species of wildlife, gardens with 128,000 plants, an outdoor amphitheater, art galleries, playgrounds, museums and even a Wolfgang Puck café.

Credit: Francis + FrancisTake two: Managing director Elizabeth Herridge is readying a new marketing campaign.

Credit: Francis + FrancisHarmonious surroundings: The Desert Living Center’s rotunda.

“There’s nothing quite like it nationally,” says museum consultant Robert Brais, an early adviser on the project.

And yet, three summers after opening, Spring Preserve officials will tell you, the 180-acre, $250 million site suffers from a bit of an image problem. Namely, what the hell is it?

“One of the challenges they have is conveying to people what it is and what a great place it is,” Brais says.

Indeed. The more you try to describe it, the fuzzier the focus. The Springs Preserve is a nature preserve, with desert trails. It’s a campus of learning, featuring hundreds of interactive exhibits, the consumer-friendly Desert Living Center and an eco research facility (plus, coming soon: the Nevada State Museum). It’s a zoo, as motorists on U.S. 95 might guess from the animal-laden sound wall. And it’s a historic preservation site, a glimpse back into the past of Las Vegas that frames spectacular views of downtown and the Strip.

“There are very few places in the Valley where people can experience what they can experience at the Preserve,” says board member and Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown. “That’s one of the things we’re touting right now.” All the pieces seem to be in place, but it may not be enough. Attendance has grown modestly since opening, but remains only a fraction of what planners projected. Tourists are staying away in droves, and there’s a palpable sense that many Las Vegans have never been there.

But why?

Besides the image problem, there’s the location. Bordered roughly by Alta Drive, Valley View Boulevard and U.S. 95, it is right in the heart of the valley and yet rather invisible. You can’t quite grasp what the Springs Preserve is from the street; you have to drive in, park and descend down an artificial box canyon (with bubbling stream) until the place opens up around you. It’s a great bit of theater, but not something you can understand while speeding by.

Price is another issue. The center cut prices for locals from $19.95 to $9.95—while this puts it on par with other attractions (the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay runs $16.95 for adults; the Atomic Testing Museum is $12; the Hoover Dam tour costs $11)—there’s still the perception that it’s too expensive. You can get in for free to wander the grounds, but tickets are collected at the entrance, rather than at the museum, which may give the impression that the place is an attraction and not a park.

Put the three together and you have a recipe for confusion—a high-culture-but-invisible oasis in a city that likes its entertainment visible and cheap.

If you’ve been there, you know the site of the Springs Preserve was the birthplace of Las Vegas. It was where Native Americans lived. The Old Spanish Trail passed by, as did the steam locomotives in need of water on the hot run from Salt Lake to Los Angeles. “Las Vegas” means “the meadows” in Spanish—these were The Meadows.

The underground wells at the site fueled Vegas’ growth for half a century, before Lake Mead did that job beginning in 1972. (The springs stopped flowing 10 years prior.) According to an early planning document, a landscape site was proposed during the ’70s by a local horticulturist named Lloyd Rooke. The Las Vegas Valley Water District provided land at Alta Drive, and in 1982 a demonstration project opened. The Water District rechristened part of the site the Desert Demonstration Garden in 1990, and then asked a research team at UNLV to draw up a master plan for the North Well Field, site of the current preserve.

One of the chief planners of the site was landscape architect Jack Zunino. He remembers early charrettes where the preserve was considering two directions. One was a true nature preserve, barely developed and with extremely limited access. The other was an Epcot-like model with rides and attractions. (There was even talk of aerial gondolas and waterslides.) In the end, planners—with public input—opted for a middle route that shades more toward the preserve: Huge swaths of relatively organic trails and wetlands, plus a zone of smart, mature exhibits and attractions.

In 2005, the Springs Preserve’s project budget was $145 million; it would top out ultimately at $250 million—$160 million was covered by the Water District. Fundraising helped cover the rest. The Springs Preserve opened to the public in June 2007 with plans to attract up to 750,000 visitors per year—more than the Hoover Dam tour draws. Initial projections had about 70 percent of those visitors pegged as tourists.

But attendance has never come close to hitting those figures. Since opening, visitation has gone up—in fiscal year 2007-2008 it stood at 157,000, minus 20,000 school kids; fiscal year 2008-2009 saw it rise to 190,465 (again minus kids); and this year’s figures just topped 204,000, a 5 percent bump over last year that doesn’t look so bad when set against a weak local economy. But only 5,600 of those—2.7 percent—were from out of state, making those initial projections look wildly optimistic. “You can do the best study in the world but you don’t know how people will embrace you until you open,” says Elizabeth Herridge, the Springs Preserve’s managing director since last fall. The preserve is run by a board of trustees comprised of civic leaders in city and county government. Its fundraising is spearheaded by a separate foundation. Herridge was appointed by the foundation in a bid to crystallize its generally hazy image.

Herridge worked on Wall Street for 17 years, including running the fixed income compliance group for Bear Sterns, earned a degree in connoisseurship in art, then went on to run the short-lived Las Vegas outpost of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum.

“I think we’d like to have more attendance,” Herridge says, noting that attendance figures don’t include people who come on to the site and wander the trails for free (a group the Springs Preserve doesn’t track). Memberships are also up from 8,000 to 13,000.

Still, she acknowledges that the preserve’s marketing has not adequately sold its virtues.

“[The public] knew it was here,” Herridge says. “They knew maybe vaguely that we had gardens and we had trails and we had some of these other things. And maybe they even knew it was the historical birthplace of Las Vegas. But they didn’t know what can you do here. That was the big barrier we’ve had to cross.”

Part of the problem may have been billing the Springs Preserve as our version of New York’s Central Park. The latter is five times as large, and is overwhelmingly visible—when you reach the park you know you’re there. You can drive right by the Springs Preserve on Valley View Boulevard and not know it. The Springs Preserve is less than Central Park—and in some ways it may be more—but the two are not easily comparable.

But more fundamentally, after a big advertising push when the site opened, leaders simply dropped the ball. The Springs Preserve launched with a stunning-but-vague animated commercial featuring a tortoise strolling through a colorful desert sprouting with flora, hopping with fauna and laced with rainbows. The tortoise sings a catchy song based on Sam Cooke’s “The Birds and the Bees” and promises, “Let me tell you ’bout the Springs Preserve … .”

“After the opening there really wasn’t a particularly strong effort made at marketing or advertising,” Herridge says. “There was a lull there … you lose momentum, you lose interest, you’re not in front of everybody all the time.”

In the spring of 2009, local ad agency R&R Partners was brought in by the Springs Preserve to conduct focus groups and help freshen up the message. The groups were small—less than 50 people—but the comments confirmed what Springs Preserve officials suspected.

“People knew the name Springs Preserve but they didn’t know what it meant, what to expect,” says R&R senior account executive Shannon Doherty. “There’s a level of mystery.” Some had misperceptions about the price—and the attendant question of value. Some were simply uninformed.

People who were encouraged by R&R came back as fans, but those who had been a couple times, Doherty says, “wanted more activities, more events, more reasons to go. They wanted another draw.”

As a result, last fall the Springs Preserve launched a series of major festivals, including a haunted harvest, a winter lights event and programming to celebrate Day of the Dead and Black History Month. In almost a year, the Springs Preserve has hosted 27 such events, up from six in the year the center opened. In addition, Herridge has launched a scholastic art contest, writing awards and fine art programming in two galleries.

The festivals are helping to redefine the preserve, and they’re driving this year’s modest up tick in attendance—the Day of the Dead celebration alone brought in 8,000.

“We just do a lot of different things that bring people back to the property again and again,” Herridge says. “So if you’ve been here once you don’t have to wait a year to come back. You can come back this month, next month and there will be new things for you to do that will be extremely high quality.”

But only if the Preserve can manage its budget in a fragile economy. In fiscal 2008-09, the Springs Preserve’s budget was $11 million, $9 million of which came from the Water District while the rest was revenue. In fiscal year 2009-10, which ended June 30, the total budget was $9.5 million, of which the Water District paid $8 million. Put another way, the Springs Preserve covered only about 17 percent of its expenses through revenue in its last fiscal year.

Budget cuts are looming from the Water District, and there are suggestions that public support should be zeroed out altogether. At a county meeting a few weeks ago, Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani raised questions about whether the district should continue to support the Springs Preserve. In an interview last week, she said that, even given the initial start-up costs the district help fund, “Most of us figured within three to five years, [the Springs Preserve] should be a viable, self-sustainable program.” She adds,“I don’t think it’s fair to justify that [Las Vegans] have to pay when they think they’re just paying for water.”

Herridge is planning on a much smaller level of support from the Water District. “The Water District has said they don’t expect us to ever get to zero,” she says. But they do want their subsidy to be in the range of $4 million to $6 million a year. So even with the decreased payout for this coming year, the Preserve is, at the least, more than $1 million off the pace.

To cut costs, the Springs Preserve laid off 11 employees last winter, 17 percent of its staff, a savings of $600,000 a year. “We’re good where we are right now in terms of the money,” Herridge says. “We’re being extremely responsible in terms of looking at how we use resources, how we use labor, how we control our expenses.”

But more work remains: Herridge is charging her departments to trimming operating costs (not salaries) by 50 percent. She expects in-kind donations to help make a dent, and says that by turning her staff into, essentially, fundraisers, the Preserve could save $1 million this year. “We have to walk the walk here and be sustainable. We have to buy in and be accountable.”

The $5 million endowment has to be grown, “where it’s really going to throw off some meaningful cash,” she says. The Preserve is rolling out a more vigorous campaign for corporate donations. NV Energy donated $400,000, and private donors have chipped in, but Herridge knows her job is to “go out and get this money. People are interested in philanthropy and interested in our mission.”

Corporate sponsors have stepped in to help get the festivals off the ground, but Zunino says early planners anticipated more financial support from the casinos. That never came through.

Herridge notes there hasn’t been much coordinated planning between the Springs Preserve and the resort industry, but she says MGM Resorts International gave $250,000 over five years to help pay for buses to ferry school kids to and from the site. (Cox Communications is also a partner.) Nonetheless, the Springs Preserve has yet to snap out of its marketing doldrums. “I don’t think it’s ever been marketed well,” Giunchigliani says.

In the meantime, the Springs Preserve is pushing ahead with new ventures. Three old Union Pacific cottages at the site’s northeast corner will be relocated close to the still-incomplete Nevada State Museum. An exhibit built around the Preserve’s working pumping station, Waterworks, is being planned. The Preserve’s art program will expand—a show featuring Vegas glass designers Barbara and Larry Domsky is already scheduled for March.

The biggest coming attraction is the Nevada State Museum, which has been sitting empty since last spring due to lack of funding from the state. Exhibits are under construction, and director David Millman’s best guess is that they’ll be installed by spring. “As far as moving into the building and being open, that really is unanswerable. It depends on the state budget.”

Ironically, the museum could further confuse the message. Originally, the Springs Preserve was billed as a kind of meeting place. Now the branding is centering on a “place to do things,” a message that’s soon going to be on the airwaves. The new spots—the first TV ads since the site opened—are debuting this fall; this year the Preserve plans to spend more than $800,000 on advertising.

“The message is still the same,” Herridge says. “The subliminal message is about resource conservation and the history of Las Vegas, and about education and embracing our culture …” If that sounds a little inexact—the problem that haunts the place—the Springs Preserve and R&R have dreamt up a slogan that has more pop: Escape from Las Vegas.

But will the message resonate this time? Do people really want to escape Las Vegas?

“The issue is, one we live in a community that wants to be entertained,” local architect Bob Fielden says. “There’s not much entertainment out there. It’s a learning place. We want to be spoon-fed everything. Let it become a community festival center and a learning center at the same time.”

Here’s another thought: Given Las Vegas’s dearth of cultural institutions—the Las Vegas Museum of Art is gone, and it’s doubtful one in four Las Vegans could tell you where the Museum of Natural History is—the Springs Preserve is emerging as the one-stop shop for cultural life.

In bigger cities, the wealth tends to get spread around. But here, maybe one super institution—part park, part ecological preserve, part museum campus—may be Vegas’ best bet. But it has to embrace the role for which it may be uniquely suited—the city’s chief cultural attraction for those of us who live here­—and then figure out how to get that message across.