Just as the annual Winter Lights Festival was getting under way at the Springs Preserve last week, 11 of its staff members were handed their walking papers by the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
The $235 million attraction is laying off about 17 percent of its full-time staff in an effort to streamline an operation that has absorbed nearly $20 million in subsidies since it opened in June 2007.
The 11 employees were given 30 days' notice.
"I don't think there's ever a good time for this sort of thing," said water district spokesman J.C. Davis. "You've got to look at the organization and do what's best for its long-term operation."
The cuts will leave the Springs Preserve with 52 full-time staff members and reduce its salary costs by about $600,000 a year, Davis said.
Most of the positions eliminated are in middle management.
"Basically they looked to flatten the organization" and put top-level managers more directly in charge of the people in their departments, Davis said.
This marks the first time the water district has laid off full-time employees since the recession began.
Before now, the district had eliminated or left vacant 193 jobs and cut costs by more than $447 million without firing any of its full-time staff.
"We're not immune to the impacts of the economy," Davis said.
Citing a sharp decline in revenue, the district will increase its flat monthly service charge starting Jan. 1.
For about half of the customers, the monthly charge will go up $2 next year, while about 40 percent of customers will pay an additional $2.31 each month.
Any rate hike by the district invariably stokes questions and criticism about the Springs Preserve, which represents the utility's single largest expense not directly related to supplying water to valley residents.
But district officials stand behind their decision to develop the conservation-themed attraction at the site of the natural springs that drew the first human settlers here.
Deputy General Manager Dick Wimmer said the district owned the property on which those original springs once flowed. The utility had a responsibility to protect the property and provide public access to it, he said.
As for how the Springs Preserve fits into the water district's overall mission, Wimmer called it a key component in "changing people's attitudes toward life in the desert and using water wisely."
Davis said the layoffs came after a detailed review of operations by new Managing Director Elizabeth Herridge, who was hired to run the Springs Preserve in late July.
Herridge previously oversaw operations at the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at The Venetian.
In its first full year of operation, the Springs Preserve drew fewer than 200,000 visitors and wound up needing more than $10 million in funding help from the water district.
The 180-acre collection of interactive exhibits, green buildings and desert plants posted small gains in attendance and revenue during its second year but still required almost $9.3 million from the district to remain open.
That's on top of the roughly $160 million the state's largest water utility kicked in for construction of the preserve.
The district will spend the next 25 to 30 years paying that bond money back with interest.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.