Every Park Needs a Little Green

North Las Vegas will open a new public park this year, and it’s a beauty. Who will pay to keep it that way?

Judging by the plans posted on the city of North Las Vegas’ website, Craig Ranch Regional Park will be a slice of paradise.

The exurban oasis at the intersection of Craig Road and Commerce Street will sport an amphitheater with terraced lawn seating, side-by-side baseball fields with lighting for night games and artificial turf to save water, irrigation ponds planted with wetland flora, tennis courts, a skate park, a 20,000-square-foot “swim lagoon” with a sandy beach entry, playgrounds dotted with tunnels and climbing boulders, a “sculpted earth” grass garden, a rose garden, a “contemplative” garden … and the list goes on. When it opens late this year, visitors may think they’ve died and gone to Central Park.

All great cities have great public spaces where citizens can gather, recreate, relax, enjoy nature, loiter, be entertained or just be open to the lovely serendipity of unplanned interaction. Parks define and enhance cities. They can become a reason to visit if you don’t live there, or something to be proud of if you do. What would Paris be without the Luxembourg Gardens? London without Hyde Park? Unincorporated Clark County without Sunset Park?

On paper, Craig Ranch Park could be such a place. Unfortunately it’s located in a city that lacks the foresight, and the means, to nurture it.

At a recent City Council meeting discussing the problem of paying for the park’s upkeep, Councilman Wade Wagner fretted that the park would be so nice it would attract people from all over the Valley, meaning North Las Vegas taxpayers would be subsidizing their visits. And, Wagner wondered, why should North Las Vegans who don’t use the park be charged for it? “We want to save our taxpayers money,” Wagner said, as quoted in the Las Vegas Sun on April 4. “Unless you use it, you don’t have to pay for it.”

Setting aside the notion of a la carte pricing for public services—I’ve never used the services of a fire department in my life; why should I have to pay for them?—it’s important to understand that Craig Ranch was essentially a $120 million gift to the city, a freebie. The land was an old municipal golf course recast as a regional park thanks to money generated by the sale of BLM land that was funneled back to the state. North Las Vegas’ part of the agreement is to come up with the cash to maintain it—about $2.3 million annually. That’s not a trivial sum in a city that is looking at a yet another budget shortfall this year and counting its blessings because it will be only $15.5 million in the red instead of last year’s $30 million. (For more on North Las Vegas’ fiscal and political battles, see our March 29 cover story, “Scenes From the Near-Death of a City” at WeeklySeven.com/NLV).

Still, the options discussed to raise the money don’t fill me with confidence that North Las Vegas understands the real value of this park. At the meeting, city officials discussed charging an admission fee, turning the park over to a private contractor to operate, or establishing a public/private conservancy along the lines of New York’s Central Park. The first two options are antithetical to the idea of a city park. Public space and access to recreation are simply costs associated with desirable cities. Either you pay those costs, or your city winds up on a lot of lists you don’t want to be on.

Option No. 3 was a success in New York City because a core group of people understood the above. Central Park was in decline when, in 1980, a group of philanthropists devised a plan to raise funds to save it and help the city manage it. Central Park Conservancy raises money from private donations and has spent $600 million improving the park, and provides 85 percent of its annual budget to operate it. But North Las Vegas has no core group of forward-thinking leaders who cherish something as economically intangible as a public park.

Craig Ranch Park certainly comes at a bad time. North Las Vegans will be paying for their new City Hall and sewer treatment plant—combined price tag: $450 million—for decades. Both projects were started when economic times were better, and both will enhance the quality of life for residents. Neither will do much to bolster the city’s reputation among nonresidents, however.

But the park could spark the kind of real change North Las Vegas needs to move beyond its reputation as the place where crime, sprawl, urban decay and transience come together. It’s entirely plausible that a lost tourist could stumble upon Craig Ranch Park, marvel at its beauty and subsequently think highly of the forward-thinking city that would create such wonderful place. Stranger things have happened.

So save up a few bucks for the inevitable gate charge when the park opens. It will still be worth it.