A Tale of Two Suburbias

The one darkly soothing thing about the mess the Valley’s in is that we’re all in it together.

Well, sort of.

While residents of North Las Vegas are fighting to keep their recreation centers open in a city facing a $4.4 million budget hole, Henderson residents have seven thriving centers. While North Las Vegans have been busy petitioning, protesting and picketing in a campaign to recall Mayor Shari Buck, those Hendersonians who know Mayor Andy Hafen’s name seem quite content with him—and Hafen himself has been looking to the future, flirting with plans for a stadium complex, a lifestyle center built around a new St. Rose hospital and a permanent home for the Henderson Space & Science Center.

While North Las Vegas’ budget woes have left it in danger of a state takeover—thus Buck’s summer warning that she would have to close the Silver Mesa and Neighborhood recreation centers—Henderson’s recreation centers have embraced their role as an educational safety net for a cash-strapped county. “Many schools don’t have a budget for programs like guitar and piano,” says Pam Atha, who runs classes at the Henderson Multigenerational Center, “so a large number of kids come to me for music.”

In early September, North Las Vegas was able to put off the rec center closures by making a deal with the Police Officers Association (cost-of-living increases were suspended in exchange for taking layoffs off the table). The deal saved $2 million, which together with substantial increases in activity fees, has kept the centers open. (In Henderson, few class fees have increased by more than a dollar in the past decade, according to Kim Becker, the city’s community and marketing supervisor.) Residents have been told the deal keeps the centers open through the end of the year—but they’re not confident they’ll be around long after that.

Buck, who was elected in 2009 after 10 years as a councilwoman, has taken the brunt of their dissatisfaction. But anyone becoming the mayor of North Las Vegas in 2009 was entering a hornet’s nest: Modern North Las Vegas is, more than any other municipality in the Valley, a creature of the Southern Nevada real-estate bubble. Once an overlooked lower- and middle-income enclave, the town—spurred in part by development of Aliante—was one of the nation’s five fastest-growing cities every year between 2000 and 2008. The city spruced up its streets, constructed a civic plaza that reflected its growing sense of self, and built a large new city hall. The game plan was to accommodate growth, not to fret about the day when it would suddenly stop.

But savings weren’t a priority much of anywhere during the bubble years. Henderson has been well-run, but it also benefited from already being a relatively affluent, well-established city with long experience of managing growth when the boom came along. The gentrification and suburbanization of Henderson began with the growth of Green Valley in the mid-1980s. North Las Vegas was, in essence, trying to accomplish a 20-year process in less than a decade.

North Las Vegas’ future remains in question. A state takeover remains possible. So do closures of the recreation centers—the emotional issue that seems to symbolize the whole mess. And Buck’s rivals aren’t exactly stoking optimism: When Councilwoman Anita Wood voted against the police association deal, she called it “a Band-Aid to stop a gushing, bleeding wound.”

It’s true that the deal alone won’t do the trick, but it’s one small step—far more helpful than political grandstanding—toward helping a city suffering growing pains at exactly the wrong time. – Nina Bunche Pierce