Listen to some of downtown’s promoters long enough, and you wouldn’t be surprised to find flying cars on Fremont Street.
Such is some of the exaggerated talk of rapid change that floats on the warm air down there these days.
Of course, many positive changes have occurred in the careworn corridor. Trouble is, even the least of those improvements has been ballyhooed with such wide-eyed wonder that it’s easy to float away on the hyperbolic helium being pumped into the area.
Those who have watched redevelopment’s painful fits and starts for the past decade know that substantive change has come far more gradually. But, depending on which pitchman commands the pulpit, you’re tempted to think downtown is being instantly transformed from blighted eyesore to tech-savvy Newtown.
Next stop, flying cars.
Those with automobiles still Earthbound have long had a friend in Homer Powell at 10th Street Automotive. Homer isn’t one of those big-idea men. His vision doesn’t reach much past the front of his shop. He’s that most essential and underrated member of our community: the honest car mechanic.
We’re talking historic gears and grease here. Maridee’s father Salty Smith in January 1966 moved his service station and repair shop from Las Vegas Boulevard to 10th and Fremont streets. Homer and Maridee married and a decade later took over the shop. To their knowledge, a service station and auto shop has been on that site since the early 1930s.
From an office jammed with parts manuals and paperwork from dozens of ongoing repairs, Powell, wife Maridee and son Ronnie Powell have watched the fortunes of Fremont Street ebb and flow for decades. Meantime, the Powells have made a living fixing brakes and wrenching motors for generations of locals.
But now their shop is closing at the end of the month. They’ve lost their lease in the crush of real estate purchases associated with the new downtown.
Although they’ve known the end of their long tenure was coming, their search for an affordable shop in the area has been unsuccessful. Without an unexpected reprieve, they’ll wrench their last head gasket Sept. 30.
“Ronnie wanted to stay on and take care of customers,” 75-year-old Homer says, adding that with fast-rising land prices and building leases in the neighborhood the family hasn’t been able to find a practical new shop.
“I don’t know if it’s fully hit yet,” Maridee, 70, says. “We’re taking care of third-generation customers. We took pride in treating people the way we wanted to be treated.”
Homer adds, “It was fun taking care of people and treating people right without raping them and pilfering them.”
The Powells recently penned a letter to their friend and city councilman, Bob Beers, acknowledging that the end had come.
“We have searched everything within the surrounding vicinity trying to find a suitable replacement property which we could purchase so that we could continue to be available to our friends and customers,” they wrote. “… Customers like to bring their automobiles in and have them taken care of by a reputable establishment while they are at work. Time has run out for us.”
Powell said the property they leased was purchased by 1000 Fremont LLC. A search of the Nevada secretary of state’s website shows that entity associated with Downtown Las Vegas Management LLC, which is managed by Resort Gaming Group LLC, which in turn is managed by Andrew Donner, who in addition to his own substantial business interests also does most of the real estate buying for Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
Powell, meanwhile, is just an auto mechanic.
He and his family have provided quality service for decades through boom and bust on Fremont Street. They have endured all the false political promises, all the blight, all the homeless troubles, and all the street crime. And they won’t be around to enjoy the much-touted benefits of downtown redevelopment.
Downtown’s tenacious small-business owners need some help, but I suppose that’s asking too much. Not with big ideas rising like mushroom clouds, and flying cars and such.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.