Preserving the Preserve

The catalog sometimes seems as long as the number of government schemes which the suckers -- um, taxpayers -- are willing to entertain.

Not many years ago, then-state Sen. Jon Porter and then-Assemblyman Richard Perkins joined with other Henderson boosters in promoting the proposed Nevada State College, then consisting of a gleam in their eyes and an artist's rendering of a highly unlikely New England-style campus with ivied walls and, if memory serves, a big bell tower.

The new college could be launched without a penny of taxpayer money, the sponsors insisted: Donations from Henderson corporations would cover everything.

What corporate donations ended up covering was a modest amount of envelope-stuffing. After spending its first year in an abandoned yogurt stand, tax money started to flow to Nevada State College, now a grand edifice near downtown Henderson that has graduated to the permanent list of ongoing state subsidies.

Surprise, surprise.

About the same time, then-state Sen. (and dentist) Ray Rawson had proposed that, instead of the cost-effective program that saw little Nevada's would-be dentists educated at established out-of-state institutions -- and despite reports numerous states were already raising their eyebrows over increasing funding woes at existing schools -- UNLV should undertake to launch the state's own dental college.

But it wouldn't cost taxpayers a penny, Sen. Rawson explained. The dental school professors could perform dental work for needy children "out the side door," as it were, recouping enough funds from Medicaid to make the whole shindig pay for itself.

Nope. Turned out the Medicaid scheme was disallowed. Sen. Rawson got his dental school, though, and taxpayers got ... the bill.

More recently, the Las Vegas Valley Water District vowed ratepayers wouldn't be on the hook for ongoing subsidies of its 180-acre Springs Preserve, an attraction resembling a mini-Disneyland designed by giant termites near U.S. Highway 95 on Valley View Boulevard, once said ratepayers coughed up principal and interest for $160 million of the $235 million initial construction cost.

But it's now revealed the new-built collection of interactive exhibits, "green" buildings and desert plantings has absorbed nearly $20 million in subsidies since the water district opened it on June 8, 2007, requiring almost $9.3 million in new operating subsidies from the water district over the past year alone.

More than two-thirds of that money went to cover salaries and benefits for the attraction's 74 full-time employees.

Yes, visitation and revenue were up slightly from last year. But a lot of those visitors are schoolkids who get in free ... and who cost taxpayers additional loot for their transportation.

Water district General Manager Pat Mulroy says she doesn't measure the preserve's success or failure based on numbers alone, but the 32,000 local schoolkids who took free field trips to the Springs Preserve during the past school year is one number she is especially proud of.

But before the preserve opened, midrange projections called for it to draw approximately 600,000 visitors in the first 12 months, most of them tourists.

Of the 206,142 visitors to the preserve over the past year, only about 95,000 were paying customers.

With two years now in the books, the attraction is still well short of that first year figure, and tourist traffic remains almost nonexistent.

The facility attracted roughly 8,500 out-of-town visitors during its second year, a decline even from the 9,300 tourists it saw in year one.

That's a far cry from the district's stated goal of capturing about 1 percent of the local tourism market. One percent of 37.5 million people -- the number drawn to Las Vegas in 2008 -- would be 375,000.

Dick Wimmer, deputy general manager for the water district, says the preserve's marketing effort is now being retooled with the help of R & R Partners, the advertising firm behind the region's "What Happens Here" campaign.

Have we learned anything here? The next time someone proposes a few hundred million dollars in bond guarantees or direct tax subsidies to launch some kind of ... say ... "light rail mass transit" scheme in the valley, vowing "our ridership projections show the thing will pay for itself from fares alone starting in its second year," what are we going to say?