More than 15 years after Wes Isbutt converted an abandoned warehouse into what became the heart of Las Vegas' incipient Arts District, the feisty artist turned frustrated businessman says he plans to leave town.
Isbutt has long expressed frustration with city government he describes as an overbearing bureaucracy. In recent weeks it reached a boiling point, this time over special event security requirements he argues are excessive.
That frustration contributed to Isbutt listing his Arts Factory building at Charleston Boulevard and Art Way with a commercial real estate broker and a decision to stop hosting bands, poetry or other outdoor events, including at the upcoming First Friday.
"There are so many permits we have to get every month for First Friday on my own property," said Isbutt, who also goes by the name Wes Myles and who operates Studio West Photography. "I will not pay them another penny. I am done with the extortion."
That Isbutt is fed up with local government and frustrated with the arts scene isn't a complete surprise. In an interview with the Review-Journal published in February he hinted departure was imminent.
"All I see is the same stupid fights I fought 15 years ago with new players. In some cases, I've taken two steps back," said Isbutt, who bought the Arts Factory building in 1996.
Asked by the interviewer whether he was ready to give up he responded, "(Expletive), yeah. I'm at that point now. I'm entertaining offers from other cities."
LIKELY TO LIVE ON
Although some people might have a hard time imagining the Arts District without the outspoken Isbutt at its core, the Arts Factory itself probably would continue in similar form.
Jack Woodcock, the commercial real estate broker charged with selling the property, said that in the three weeks he has had the listing he already has received interest from potential buyers who would maintain the property as a collection of galleries and other arts-related businesses.
"Nothing has generated this much interest and activity, and it is due in large part because of the fact the Arts District has in the past generated a lot of interest," Woodcock said of the building, which is listed at $3.3 million.
Still, the fallout from Isbutt's decision could be a blow to the Arts District, which is trying to find its footing even after a group that includes Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh took over ownership and management of First Friday events and sought to attract larger crowds.
The group, in which Hsieh does not have a day-to-day role, bought the name and mailing list from Whirlygig Inc., a nonprofit that previously hosted the event until it went dormant last summer, in part because it couldn't keep up with escalating costs.
Dick Geyer, president of 18b The Las Vegas Arts District neighborhood association, said the Isbutt news casts a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the area, which recently has hosted some of the biggest First Friday gatherings to date but still struggles to generate consistent foot traffic throughout the month.
"If you are looking for an arts district, it seems to be in the process of disintegrating," Geyer said. "His contribution financially and emotionally and intellectually is beyond anybody down there."
In a phone interview Isbutt said that although he is offering the Arts Factory building for sale, he will retain ownership of the Bar + Bistro restaurant he installed there.
"I'm selling the Arts Factory; I'm going to stay on for ownership of the restaurant," said Isbutt, who also owns a building on Main Street that is being converted into a bar by sisters Pam and Christina Dylag. "I'll be one of those absentee landlords Las Vegas is so famous for."
WES ISBUTT'S CONCERNS
In an email to Ted Olivas, director of administrative services for the city, Isbutt wrote that "due to our profit margin being less than the expense of the police, we have no choice but to cancel all of our vendors, music, bars, poets, porta potties, clean up crews and security," for the upcoming First Friday scheduled for May 4.
In the email, Isbutt said the result is 76 fewer people working and earning an income through the event.
Isbutt has clashed with the city before over permitting issues.
His latest roadblock comes in the form of a requirement by the Metropolitan Police Department that he hire police officers at a cost of $66 per hour per officer to help secure outdoor events.
The requirement that Isbutt hire police to provide security is the result of recent changes in the city's special event permitting, city spokesman Jace Radke said. Previously, event organizers had to submit a security plan, but it didn't require police approval. Now the Police Department needs to approve security plans, which can result in a requirement to use officers.
Assistant Sheriff Ray Flynn said the department's goal is for events to be safe, which he said contributes to successful events downtown.
"Obviously our No. 1 concern is public safety," Flynn said. "If anything was to occur at one of these events, it would put a dampening on future events. The more people we can bring downtown the better it is for the community."
In part Isbutt blames the First Friday Las Vegas organization, which includes Hsieh, for being too quick to agree to police demands. What might be affordable to well-funded groups can be prohibitive to smaller businesses, Isbutt said.
The security requirements are part of the special events permitting process, which includes multiple departments but goes through the city of Las Vegas.
"They all say they want it, but they want me to pay for it," Isbutt said. "First Friday Las Vegas is too ignorant to know they shouldn't pay for it."
Joey Vanas, managing partner for First Friday Las Vegas, said he understands the frustration with the cost of hiring police officers but disagreed with the suggestion that organizers shouldn't pay it.
"He has never had to hire Metro before, and now they are asking him to hire Metro and he is upset about that," Vanas said. "If he is looking for us to say, 'No, we are not going to pay it' and have a standoff, I'm not sure what it is going to accomplish."
Vanas said he, too, is frustrated with the cost and is looking for alternatives, such as hiring private security or recruiting volunteers to help keep the peace.
He also said requesting more money from the city for expenses such as security is among the options.
"I'd like to see the city help us to try to manage that cost," Vanas said. "That to me makes sense."
City Manager Betsy Fretwell said the upcoming annual budget could have as much as $60,000 for First Friday support, up from about $20,000.
But she disagreed with Isbutt's suggestion that the city makes hosting special events or doing other business difficult for small operators.
She said city officials have streamlined the permitting process, reduced fees and improved service times in City Hall.
Fretwell said improvements in the process have come even as First Friday has grown dramatically, attracting as many as 20,000 people downtown earlier this year.
And the city has helped Isbutt, Fretwell said, by shifting traffic on Charleston during First Friday to avoid the lane closest to the Arts Factory, which makes it safer and easier for customers to purchase drinks and spend time.
"We have made a lot of strides to make this easier for people, but we still have to have some rules. It can't just be a free-for-all because that would be a problem," Fretwell said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com.