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Black-owned businesses struggling in West Las Vegas

The cost of reopening F Street, the closure of which in 2008 was criticized by some as an act of segregation: $20 million.

A new and improved Lorenzi Park, thanks to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: $30 million.

The repaving of D Street on the east and Tonopah Avenue on the west and several streets in between: $14 million.

The Historic Westside is undergoing some major changes, not to mention a few smaller successes on the franchise front: El Pollo Loco is opening this fall just south of the McDonald’s at Lake Mead and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards; a Dollar General Market opened in March no more than an outfield flyball west of it.

Ricki Barlow, the Las Vegas council­man representing Ward 5, which includes the now Hispanic-dominated community, says change is coming to the long embattled neighborhood, which locals say has for decades been largely ignored by the city.

“We’re talking about a lot of money,” said Barlow, 41, who was elected in 2007 on a platform that would bring West Las Vegas back to life and redevelop the rundown areas so people will move there instead of leaving.

“When you add it all up, it’s mind-blowing, and it took a lot of work, a lot of visits to Washington, D.C., a lot of coordination with our federal delegation.”

And yet small black-owned businesses, often considered the last stand in any struggling inner-city neighborhood, are failing even as the city and the Regional Transportation Commission inject money into what used to be a largely black neighborhood, where abandoned buildings and federally subsidized housing projects have long become a fact of life on the urban landscape.

Mom-and-pop businesses, from convenience stores to restaurants, are closing in unprecedented numbers in the area, which is bordered by Carey Avenue on the north, Interstate 15 on the east, Rancho Drive on the west and Bonanza Road on the south.

The drop has been 75 percent in the past decade, according to Ernest Fountain, a lender who has seen better days at New Ventures, a capital development company on Ninth Street in Las Vegas.

LACK OF BUSINESS LOANS BLAMED

Black-owned businesses have traditionally struggled in the area, if only because it’s not the most visited part of the valley; but the downturn in black-owned businesses has increased since fall 2008, Fountain said. That’s when banks started clamping down on loans after the credit bubble burst and the nation fell into a deep recession.

Part of the problem is that the banks look at West Las Vegas and see too much of a risk in loaning money, he said.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, a federal agency designed to guarantee bank loans as much as 90 percent, seems to be coming up short, as well. In September 2012, black firms across the country received only 1 percent of all SBA loans; in 2011 only 2 percent; September 2010, only 2 percent again; in September 2009, 3 percent, according to Fountain.

In Nevada, only three loans were made to black businesses in 2012, he said. In 2011, only four loans. In 2010, only three.

“A lot of small businesses are suffering. We’re not in control of the loans; that’s up to the banks,” said Bob Holguin, deputy district director with the federal agency in Las Vegas. “When you apply for a loan, you need to be ready. Lenders aren’t going to lend you money unless they know you have a business plan and you have a way of paying the banks back.”

Holguin said business owners who are having a rough go should seek out free business counseling, which is offered by the Urban Chamber of Commerce. It has a small-business development center office, with counselors and trainers. He said they also can get help from the Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, which has seasoned executives who are retired and are looking to help.

But for some businesses, such advice is too little too late.

Fountain ticks off the victims that have fallen prey to what he calls a combination of “undercapitalization” and “a lack of access to capital.” They include Town Tavern, Love Cocktail Lounge, Survivor’s Fish Market, Community Store, Hamburger Heaven, Hick’s Barbecue, People’s Choice, Jimmy’s Cheyenne Market, Tallulah Too, Chez Polle, and even a pair of fairly large bus companies that once catered to tourists on the Strip’s periphery, Ray and Ross and Western Coach.

“A lot of folks struggle for a long time before they put their hands up and give up,” said Fountain, who is trying to convince Barlow to look at some sort of financial assistance program, perhaps a revolving loan. “We’re talking about people who started with nothing but shoeshine money and then operated their business on a shoestring budget.”

SPRUCE UP VERSUS INVEST MORE

Barlow said he is familiar with the concept, and that it’s something the city did in the mid-1980s, but has since dismantled. Barlow said the answer is in sprucing up the neighborhood, which could only lead to more “re-gentrification,” eventually making West Las Vegas not just a pass-through point, but an ultimate destination to live.

Still, Fountain can’t help but imagine what the millions of dollars in street improvements could have done for the struggling businesses that have been squeaking by, including Jackson Market, owned by Lillian McMorris. The convenience store on D Street has doubled as a clothing store for the past three years; it’s the latest in a long line to hold a clearance sale, its doors shutting at the end of this month.

Leroy Mack, the store’s manager, places the blame on the lousy economy, but he is not going to let Barlow and the city get off so easily. He blames the store’s demise in part on the ongoing construction of D Street.

It’s difficult to do business when the D Street exit off the I-15 is closed.

“We may have had a fighting chance, if somebody came in to assist us economically and help us grow while the street was being worked on,” said a visibly upset Mack from behind the counter. “But the construction killed the traffic, and you can’t operate a business when you don’t have the traffic.”

The goodbye letter on the front of the door, scrawled in pen, tells it all: “Another black owned business closing and the city and Ricki Barlow opening a new district. Millions spent on the new street project, but no money for district business. Everybody helps their people but us. We got too righteous and we forget where we come from.”

Barlow, who grew up on the outskirts of West Las Vegas and has a master’s degree in public administration from UNLV, defends his capital improvement projects. In the short term, things may look bad, he says; but in the long term, when the dust has settled and the asphalt has cooled, the new look will create a healthier, more robust West Las Vegas.

“Right now, nobody’s going to lend to the Westside,” he said. “Nobody’s going to lend to an area that’s in decay. People are just going to have to be patient. Transformation isn’t going to happen overnight.”

WEST LAS VEGAS FLIGHT

The downturn of the community didn’t happen overnight. There was a time, back in the 1950s, when the place was hopping, with at least a dozen casinos, hotels and motels. Then the Strip started growing and the exodus began.

Other neighborhoods flourished, but West Las Vegas’ black residents, no longer forced to live a life of segregation, started moving out. They found homes and jobs elsewhere in a sort of reverse “white flight” that occurred in the inner cities of America in the mid-1980s.

They left behind those who were born and raised in the neighborhood and refuse to leave.

Churches have cropped up amid the rows of abandoned buildings, offering hope and prayer at a time of high un­employment, particularly among blacks.

To survive, some business owners have opened their own churches next door or down the street, their customers becoming a part the congregation, the congregation a part of their customer base.

It’s not uncommon to find Jesse L. Wesley Sr., 85, preaching God’s saving grace to some of the rougher set while he cuts their hair at his barber shop at D and Jackson streets. In the name of Jesus, he occasionally persuades them to find the light at El Bethel MB Church next door, the former site of Survivor’s Fish Market.

“There are a lot of lost souls out here,” said Wesley, who has lived in the community since 1951, always within a mile of his barber shop. “And if they aren’t lost, then they’ve already left town.”

He compares the neighborhood to Detroit, saying, “We have to find a way to bring the people back.”

Annie Thompson, who cooks some serious ribs and chicken at Annie’s Kitchen on D Street, next door to the failing Jackson Market, was hoping to bring at least some of the residents back with a fabulous family restaurant that would rival Famous Dave’s.

For the past seven years, the restaurant has been a diamond in the rough of vacant lots. Her recipes are top secret, having been passed down from her grandmother and mother.

But she recently received the bad news from Fountain: Her application for a $120,000 loan was denied by the banks. Fountain’s job often waivers from savior to deliverer of such bad news.

Thompson and her husband, Bill, a pastor at Hallelujah Praise Ministries down the street, were hoping to buy the building they now pay rent on, expand and refurbish the joint, then hoist a beacon of a sign that could be seen from I-15. Now they’re back to the drawing board, but they adamantly believe they’ve got God on their side.

The white painted cross on the storefront says it all — “Great God.”

“Our No. 1 ingredient is the seasoning,” said Bill Thompson, 61, a former Marine wearing a black beret as he sat in the rib shack. “No, let me take that back. That’s our No. 2 ingredient. Our No. 1 ingredient is God. We pray over what we make and God makes it the best.

“And the sauce is boss.”

John Edmond, owner of the Edmond Town Center, says plenty of businesses in his center have been doing well for themselves, including the Buy Low grocery store that replaced a Von’s, which shut its doors several years ago.

But the grocery store is a metaphor for the changing neighborhood. These days it mostly caters to Latinos, whose presence is on the rise and who make up 65 percent of the population. The store’s delicatessen offers tacos and menudo, a tripe soup that usually is served on the weekend because it’s supposed to be the perfect cure for a hangover.

“It would be silly not to cater to them,” Edmond said.

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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