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Lee’s optimistic outlook yet to be spoiled by major setback

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee faced a roller coaster year in 2015, but he gave no inkling of any downside in his 2016 State of the City speech last Thursday.

First there was departing Police Chief Joseph Chronister, who left claiming Lee received special treatment in an investigation into how kiddie porn showed up on the mayor’s iPad. Ultimately, Lee was cleared of wrongdoing.

The mayor failed to persuade higher education officials to change the name of the College of Southern Nevada’s Cheyenne Campus to reflect that it’s in North Las Vegas, which he had listed as a priority for 2015.

On the upside, Lee bragged about cutting the deficit he inherited when he became mayor in July 2013. “Within days of taking office we began solving the well-known $17 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year. We soon uncovered a $7 million hole in the budget the former council just passed and a $152 million seven-year budget deficit,” he said.

“Remember the $152 million long-term budget deficit we inherited?” he asked 640 people at Texas Station. “I am happy to report it has been reduced to under $23 million.”

But depending on hiring and union contract negotiations, that long-term deficit could fall between $23 million and $107 million, Finance Director Darren Adair told Review-Journal reporter Alex Corey.

In that case, a financial step backward could leave Lee far less cheerful.

Under former Mayor Shari Buck, the city’s workforce had been reduced from 2,250 to 1,250 in reaction to the recession. Today, there are 1,365 North Las Vegas employees.

Lee’s lasting legacy? The city government was not taken over by the state.

Lee can also brag about his leadership in clearing the way for Faraday Future to come to the still barren Apex Industrial Park, presuming utilities make it out there as planned. “The audacious plan we put in place to induce infrastructure development for our industrial area is showing the fruits of success,” he said.

But so far, it’s a plan, not yet a reality. Without power, water, sewer and rail access, Apex will remain an 18,000-acre wasteland, albeit a wasteland with promise. But the city has obtained easements for a water line to Apex, a promising step. The next immediate challenge is water.

In their first effort to recruit Faraday Future, Lee and City Manager Qiong Liu went to a meeting in Los Angeles to pitch Apex’s 7,000 acres of flat, construction-friendly land, to Faraday Future, an electric car company. The meeting, scheduled for 15 minutes, stretched to 90. “I am also certain when they saw a meeting scheduled with two common Chinese surnames, Liu and Lee, they were not thinking about the Irish version of Lees,” the mayor joked.

Nevada beat out three other states for the $1 billion plant.

But Apex isn’t the only acreage the city is pitching for development in a city where half the land is vacant.

In his 2014 speech, Lee said he and then-Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins were working together to develop real estate south of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Now that Collins has said he will run against Lee for mayor in 2017, Lee listed that effort in land-rich North Las Vegas as a city priority.

Supposedly, businesses are ready to build on the 1,100 acres there, but they have not been revealed yet. No mention of any assistance from Collins, who stepped down from his commission job for family reasons.

Among his many thank-yous to elected officials, Lee called Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman “the big sister God never gave me.” However, both mayors are competing to have UNLV build its new medical school within their cities. If North Las Vegas doesn’t nab the school, that will show up in his loss column, much like renaming CSN did, except with a far greater economic loss.

Lee boldly predicted the property around the VA Medical Center will become the center for medical research and development for the entire Southwest.

Without the medical school, that may be less likely.

There was a clear contrast between Goodman’s recent State of the City speech and Lee’s. She described 2015 as a good year, not a great year.

Lee was more optimistic. “When you think of Las Vegas, you think of the Strip; when you think North Las Vegas you will think economic vitality, advanced manufacturing and progress.”

(The Strip is in unincorporated Clark Clark, not the city of Las Vegas, as county officials repeatedy note.)

Perhaps the difference is that Goodman is entering her sixth year in office and sees how long it takes for visions to become reality. She also sees successes she once touted turn into failures, as some downtown businesses have shut their doors.

Lee, who is starting his third year as mayor, remains jubilant, partly because it’s his personality, partly because he has yet to face a big setback, such as Goodman’s downtown stadium loss.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Thursdays. Leave messages for her at 702-383-0275 or email jmorrison@reviewjournal.com. Find her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison

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