Cash-strapped Springs Preserve should get the Puck out of there

Unlike some of its critics, I’ve been to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve many times since it opened in 2007.

My wife and daughter love the place, from its conservation-themed exhibits to its weekly farmer’s market. We stroll the grounds, occasionally attend historical lectures and make a point of stopping by the gift shop.

A highlight of a trip to the Preserve is getting a bite to eat at the Springs Café by Wolfgang Puck. The service is inconsistent, and I’ve never once seen Mr. Puck on the premises, but the salads are tasty. And the remarkable view from the upstairs window stretches across the Preserve’s manicured grounds all the way to the Strip.

The café is a relaxing respite as far from the neon heart of Las Vegas as you can get without a passport. When the sky turns scarlet at sunset, the panorama borders on breathtaking.

You might be tempted to call it a $1 million view. But you’d be wrong.

It’s only a $422,500 view.

That’s the net cost in the past fiscal year of keeping open the Springs Café and maintaining its association with Mr. Puck.

Given the fact the Las Vegas Valley Water District is forced this year to spend an additional $9.27 million to subsidize the operation of the Preserve, officials have no reasonable alternative but to get the Puck out of there.

It’s nothing personal. Like I say, it’s a very nice salad. But underwriting the existence of a café with an elitist signature theme in tough economic times sends a terrible message.

It’s no real shock that the Preserve, a $235 million project that soaked up $160 million in construction costs from the water district, wasn’t built as a purely profit-making venture. It was oversold to locals with a proposal estimating that 600,000 people — nearly 400,000 of them tourists — would visit in the first year.

That projection was full of more hot air than has ever risen from the floor of the Mojave Desert.

This past year, according to a recent Review-Journal article, the Preserve attracted 206,142 visitors but only 95,000 paying customers. That’s only 45,000 more than the diminutive Las Vegas Zoo on Rancho Drive draws each year, and it operates on a shoestring.

Last time I checked, the zoo also gets by without a fancy pants food outlet.

Water District Senior Public Information Coordinator J.C. Davis has the unenviable task of explaining the Puck expenditure. For starters, the chef’s company receives a $75,000 management fee. There’s a profit-sharing arrangement between the café and the Preserve, he says, but that hinges on the operation actually turning a profit.

Let’s just say that day is a long way off.

The Preserve pays the café’s overhead, from its employees to its electric bill. It’s essentially a free restaurant for the Puck company with a tidy profit built in.

Like a Chicago Cubs fan, Davis assures a skeptic to wait until next year: The café’s net loss is expected to decrease to a mere $286,000.

"The ultimate goal is to have this thing paying for itself," Davis says. "We haven’t lost sight of that. … We don’t consider it a pipe dream to see Puck paying its way down the road."

Combine the lack of name recognition common to all startup businesses with a local economy that has tanked badly in the national recession, and you have legitimate mitigating factors tripping up the Preserve’s grand plan.

Add to that the fact the café is intended to offer a sustainability theme, which complicates everything from the ingredients of those salads to the utensils used to consume them, and it’s more than a glorified hot dog stand.

But given the tight budget of the average Las Vegan, it’s clear the Preserve’s planners overshot the demographic with a celebrity café.

Although Davis assures me Puck won a request for proposal, I suspect these days the Preserve would find plenty of struggling restaurant owners willing to take over the café and actually do the unthinkable — pay the rent and electric bill.

With the Springs Preserve leaking the desert’s most precious resource — money — it only makes sense to end its pretentious relationship with Mr. Puck.

A lot of people can make a salad, and Wolfgang can’t take credit for the view.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at

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