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Henderson’s historic Water Street receives new life

Updated September 3, 2019 - 6:00 am

Sleepy Water Street, older than Henderson itself, cuts through the city’s historic downtown.

But during the next decade, as Henderson gears up for big population spikes, Water Street is expected to see more and more traffic, which will challenge the street’s ability to maintain its vintage feel as new businesses move in among historic shops.

Looming over the quiet sidewalks in the center of the Water Street District sits Emerald Island Casino, a newer venue operating in an old landmark. Tim and Mike Brooks bought the former Pot O’ Gold Casino and opened Emerald Island in 2003, recognizing it as “a good opportunity,” said Tim Brooks, who manages daily operations.

“Downtown Henderson at that time was not as vibrant,” he recalled. “What it’s doing now is what we expected to happen over 10 years ago, until we had a bump in our economy.”

Brooks is also a proud downtown Henderson resident himself, with a home on Rancho Drive, “only six minutes away,” he said.

Flemming Pederson opened Chef Flemming’s Bake Shop in 2008, just as much of Las Vegas began to feel the effects of the great recession. But Pederson had been in culinary arts for nearly 40 years at the time, spending more than 15 years at the Golden Nugget after moving to Las Vegas from a small town in Denmark in 1980.

“I looked in this area here because I wanted to have this small town feel,” Pederson said.

Water Street may not look like a small town soon though, and Pederson is putting in his own efforts to increase traffic. Known as Chef Flemming, he owns two storefronts in the Olsen Plaza, near the northern corner of South Water Street and West Victory Road, and will soon be subleasing a third storefront to another food business. He hopes more food in the plaza will bring more foot traffic.

“I truly believe competition only strengthens you because there’s strength in numbers,” Pederson said. “We do not have a lot of foot traffic and we hope that someday before I die we’ll have enough business here.”

Time to change

A large banner that hangs in the bake shop reads “artisan” in Danish, but it may be one of the few old decorations left after Pederson begins to modernize.

“Some of the comments are that we’re a little too old school for some of the younger people,” he said. To keep up with the times, he says he’s considering putting in free Wi-Fi and extending his hours. “Even though I’m old, I’m young enough to know that sometimes change is good because change is bringing different sets of people,” he says.

Some of Pederson’s newest clients will be coming from a housing development that’s slowly creeping closer to Water Street, the Cadence Community. Spokesperson Cheryl Gowan said most Cadence residents are Las Vegas natives, but the houses they move into range from duplexes to three-story estates. All of the home buyers, she said, are looking for a change of pace.

“Some of the folks who have been here a long time like the old businesses. A lot of younger buyers and millennials like that transformation,” she said.

More than 1,500 families live in Cadence now, with more than 13,000 additional homes expected to be built by 2030. The company is also in talks with Henderson about the expansion of Water Street, which is expected to break ground by the end of 2019, she said.

The expansion is part of what many local officials are calling the largest population spike Water Street has ever witnessed, the idea being to catch consumers “before they get on the 215” to shop, said Kelly Green, executive director of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“It’s got the best chance it’s ever had to really become that unique downtown area, to live down here and walk around and bike to restaurants and visit the businesses,” Green said.

Property values rising

The Chamber sponsors the Henderson Business Resource Center, a nonprofit focused on bringing in new businesses and supporting existing shops. Green admitted the resurgence of the area has made property values “shoot up significantly,” but she said this could be a great opportunity for some owners to sell.

“Some are concerned they aren’t going to be able to afford it down there now,” she said. “Some people that own buildings and own homes have a shot at making money.”

On a hot day in early August, seven storefronts sat vacant on just two blocks of Water Street, but several owners assured the Review-Journal that almost all are in rental negotiations already.

Green predicts that Cadence could also change the type of customer who comes to Water Street.

“I think you’re going to end up with a younger population down there,” she said, but “growth and transformation is going to be a positive thing.”

Though the new homeowners haven’t moved in yet, the houses don’t have doors, and the new Knights arena located further south on Water Street isn’t allowing residents to lace up just yet, the president of the Water Street District Business Association said the street has already undergone major changes. Most prominent: tearing down the Henderson Convention Center.

“I think the big shift has taken place over the last six months or so, but I’ve been saying for over a year if you haven’t been to Water Street, you won’t recognize it,” she said. “There’s so much new, fresh interest in Water Street.”

The business association’s main goal is to make Water Street a destination area. It’s focus is on how local businesses can get people to drive to their location. Bailey said the area is seeing business consistently picking up, and that all business is good business.

“For a long time it was kind of stagnant and hasn’t been getting much attention,” Bailey said. “All ships rise with the rising tide.”

Where it all started

Lou La Porta moved to Henderson from his hometown in rural New York after being drafted in World War II. When the war ended, he and his wife Elayne moved into a house on Magnesium Street and paid $30 a month.

“The total town wasn’t more than about 3,000 people,” La Porta said. “We were given the opportunity to take what we’d like in terms of a townsite home and we did.”

They didn’t stay in the house long, La Porta said, because he was ready to expand. On a street a few blocks away was barren land that the state had “no plans for,” he said. La Porta offered the state $75 a month for a plot of land and built his family home at 129 Water St.

By the time Henderson was incorporated in 1953, La Porta had built five homes in the heart of what is now the Water Street District, and was helping to found the Black Mountain Golf Course with four other men.

New memories in an old shop

An avid Henderson history collector and Water Street business owner of more than 35 years, Michael Holland hopes these new shoppers stick around and make their own memories of Water Street.

“We can’t make them look at our pictures and remember everything. You have to create your own memories,” Holland said. “Once we’re gone it’ll be their Henderson anyway.”

Holland moved to Las Vegas from Cape Cod in 1983 and started working for a well-known Las Vegas jeweler.

“My first job was with M.J. Christensen down on East Sahara when the old man was still alive,” he said.

Holland leased a 500-square-foot store of his own on Army Street three years later for $150 a month, and expanded to Water Street five years after that. He now owns the building where his store, Gold Casters Jewelry, is located. He is also a downtown Henderson resident himself, living in the same home off West Van Wagenen Street since he moved to the city.

“It really came to fruition the day when this kid said to me, ‘Mr. Holland, you’ve been here my whole life,’” Holland said. “We love that. We don’t ever want to lose those people.”

Holland’s door is on the side of his building, overlooking a back parking lot with the mountains in the distance. Behind his building lies Magnesium Street, complete with a plethora of homes under a quarter-acre that were all built in 1942. The view from Holland’s doorstep is a microcosm of a much older Henderson.

Holland and Brooks opened businesses in the area 20 years apart, but the two make very similar efforts to support the businesses around them. Brooks allows gamblers to redeem their Emerald Island player’s points at 30 local stores. Holland prefers to slide his coupons into other stores, and tells shoppers which stores carry his coupons.

“If they want to keep this type of atmosphere, you have to help us out and go to their businesses,” Holland said. “I’m going to survive as long as the other businesses do.”

Holland compared Water Street to Fremont Street, which he recalled “cruising down” before “they put a roof on it.” He argued that people still know that Fremont Street is historic, though they may not know why.

“I think we’ll still be called old Downtown Water Street, and sometimes it’s just the name that sticks.”

Similarly, La Porta compared Downtown Henderson today to the days of quick expansion he witnessed when he first starting building what’s now referred to as the Henderson Townsite houses.

“I won’t see it, but they will be able to make those areas grow,” he said, excited by the possibilities. “Fifteen years from now you’ll wonder where it went. It’ll all change.”

Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter.

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