North Las Vegas’ Craig Ranch Regional Park has been called plenty of names in the six months since its debut. Few have called it boring.
The 170-acre, $130 million park — billed as the “crown jewel” of the city’s 36-park system — has hosted thousands of visitors since its Nevada Day grand opening, netting an estimated $3,000 in new programming revenue on events such as January’s Martin Luther King Day of Service and March’s inaugural Cesar Chavez Day celebration.
Craig Ranch’s 65,000-square-foot skate park remains packed on weekends, and the park’s four civic plazas rarely sit empty. Attendance at its once-quiet baseball field complex continues to climb as mornings warm up and nights stretch a little longer.
But the park doesn’t come cheap. It is expected to cost its financially troubled owner more than $700,000 by the end of the year.
The park, still under warranty, is partially staffed by private security and graffiti abatement crews hired through Craig Ranch construction contractors. City officials haven’t articulated a plan for covering up to $2.2 million in annual maintenance costs once they take over the reins in July.
North Las Vegas faces an $18 million deficit next year and a projected $152 million shortfall through 2021.
Debt issued by the state’s fourth-largest city recently was tagged as the riskiest municipal bond investment in the country, at least among large cities that aren’t already bankrupt.
All of which raises the question: Can North Las Vegas afford Southern Nevada’s newest regional park?
CITY OFFICIALS SAY YES
The answer, according to city officials, is a resounding yes.
Mayor’s office Chief of Staff Ryann Juden isn’t worried that officials will fumble the looming handoff of Craig Ranch’s day-to-day operations, nor does he sweat their ability to cover the park’s outsized chunk of the city parks budget.
He expects annual revenue generated at the park’s unbuilt amphitheater to top $500,000 within three years of the 3,000-seat venue’s 2015 debut, good for more than half of some conservative park maintenance estimates.
He said the city isn’t looking at long-rumored access fees to help make the park sustainable, but he said leaders have tossed around proposals that would raise revenue through events hosted at the popular skate park.
Solutions like those are too often lost between the lines on a balance sheet, he added.
“Craig Ranch has the opportunity to make all the city’s parks self-sufficient,” Juden said. “I honestly believe it can lift all the other parks because it’s the kind of asset that attracts people who want to be a part of the solution. … There would be no Jon Oats, for example, if it weren’t for Craig Ranch.”
Oats couldn’t be happier to help.
The president and co-founder of park ambassador group Friends of Craig Ranch guesses he and as many as 200 member volunteers dedicate more than 30 hours a week to trash and graffiti cleanup at the park, saving the city an estimated $30,000 since the park opened.
Oats is the volunteer municipal staffers dream about — the type who takes it upon himself to help monetize Craig Ranch’s 62 community garden plots at $150 a pop or put on a 3-on-3 basketball tournament aimed at benefiting park volunteer efforts.
City Hall hopes to hand Craig Ranch over to groups such as Oats’ within the next five to 10 years.
Oats would go a step further.
“Everybody is willing to put in extra time to make this park come off,” he said Wednesday. “Ideally, as the group gets big enough, we’d like it to become a Friends of the North Las Vegas Parks System-type group.”
MORE BILLS COMING
Longtime Parks Director Mike Henley, one of few who know Craig Ranch better than Oats, was laid off in February, a month before construction bids at the park’s Clark County-subsidized amphitheater added an unexpected $2.1 million to the city’s five-year capital improvement plan.
Planned expansions at one of Craig Ranch’s two adventure playgrounds — with the addition of 30 acres of soccer fields — are set to tack another $1.7 million to the city’s infrastructure spending blueprint over the next year, figures former Henderson parks chief Mary Ellen Donner will have to grapple with in her new role as Henley’s successor.
Donner also will be charged with spreading eight maintenance staffers across three dozen municipal parks, ranks that could get even thinner under proposed 10 percent to 20 percent across-the-board spending cuts that could kick in by June 1.
The new parks chief doesn’t start on the job until April 15 and could not be reached for comment last week.
Parks Advisory Board Member Ken Kraft, asked about Donner’s job a day before her appointment, came up with a few ways the incoming parks director might balance the department’s books through future programming revenue.
He couldn’t think of any that would do the job immediately.
“We need a lot more events like Cesar Chavez Day,” Kraft said Wednesday. “We’re still talking with a disc golf group about setting up at Craig Ranch. I know that would be the holy grail for them. They would love to set up a championship course there.”
A Utah-based auditing firm has suggested the city could save $9.9 million over the next seven years by cutting its ownership stake in two city-owned golf courses.
That proposal hasn’t gained much traction in city circles. Publicly available budget documents indicate the city has spent more than $516,000 on staffing, upkeep and water bills at the Aliante Golf Course this fiscal year.
STRAIN FELT IN OTHER PARKS
Meanwhile, voices outside City Hall have hinted the city ought to look into moving Craig Ranch off the books.
Longtime resident Lisa McClaren doesn’t think they need to go that far.
But McClaren, who lives three miles from Craig Ranch, said she already has seen evidence of the park’s strain on a threadbare city recreation budget.
About two months ago, she noticed a strange green and white film spreading across Aliante Nature Discovery Park’s ponds.
A few weeks later, she found dead ducks, turtles and pigeons floating in the frothy water, deaths she blames on improperly maintained pond ventilation spouts and a lack of oversight at Aliante.
McClaren, a veterinary technician, is aware of the city’s fiscal struggles and made it clear she sympathizes with park staffers’ efforts to do more with less.
Pond conditions seem to have improved in the weeks since a city Animal Control officer paid McClaren a visit.
She just hopes things stay that way.
“I know Craig Ranch is the new (park), but we’ve got a lot of problems out here, too,” McClaren said. “I’m more than happy to scuba dive in the pond myself to see what’s going on.
“I’m not going to not do something. I have to.”
Contact James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3839. Follow @JamesDeHaven on Twitter.