Otis Harris has long had a dream: to transform North Las Vegas into a world-class city flush with international businesses and jobs.
The controversial local developer and self-described economic activist says he has the business acumen and international connections — culled over decades of dreaming this particular dream — to pull off such a transformation in the cash-strapped city.
City officials and most City Council members have bought into Harris’ dream.
Last year the city entered into a public-private partnership with Harris’ Unibex Global Corporation. The focus of the agreement is to create a master-planned “international business community,” a “recognized global destination for international business” that could include “clusters” of universities, health care and high-tech industries scattered throughout the city, including in its downtown redevelopment area.
There’s just one problem. The North Las Vegas mayor wants to quash his dream, Harris said.
“She’s been doing everything she can to try to wreck it,” he said.
To Mayor Shari Buck, Harris’ dream sounds more like a scam.
On Wednesday, Buck cast the lone Council vote against the city paying $500,000 to Gensler, an internationally known architectural firm recruited by Harris, to develop the first phase of that master plan. That phase will include a detailed program, budget, development objectives and approach.
Gensler is the firm that oversaw the seven architectural firms brought in to design CityCenter in Las Vegas.
Buck said she doesn’t think the financially struggling city, with its budget shortfall and scores of recent layoffs, should be spending money on such a plan.
“The fact that the City Council would lay off hundreds of employees, yet find half a million to do a study is ridiculous, ludicrous, stupid,” she said.
The mayor also said she didn’t like the fact that firms other than Gensler weren’t given the opportunity to bid for the design of the master plan.
It didn’t help that Harris wrote the mayor an angry letter in November asking whether she had “a racial problem” with him. Harris is black. The mayor is white.
The letter accused the mayor of “trying to sabotage” the public-private partnership “from day one.”
“After thinking about it, I suppose it all boils down to the body dress Heavenly Father desired for me to wear in this world,” Harris wrote.
Buck said she resented the letter’s implications.
“It was disappointing that someone — because I don’t support his project — would stoop to calling me a racist,” she said. “I was shocked that someone who wants to do business with the community would treat me like that.”
Harris stood by the letter on Tuesday, and said he considered the mayor’s lack of response to it “an acknowledgement.”
He could see no other reason Buck would oppose his plans.
“She would let personal bigotry kill off opportunities for the many,” he said.
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Harris’s dream is ambitious. The idea is to turn North Las Vegas into a “global destination for international business.” The plan would be based on redevelopment efforts in places such as Shanghai’s’s Pudong district, which has in recent decades emerged as the country’s financial and commercial hub.
Pudong has been divided into economic “districts,” including a high-tech district and a trade and financial district.
Gensler is working on scores of projects in China.
The architectural firm would come up with a plan designating similar districts in North Las Vegas, which could include pharmaceutical, high-tech, life sciences and corporate headquarters sectors. The plan would include marketing to foreign and domestic investors to recruit them to the city.
Right now, the economy in North Las Vegas depends on the hospitality, gaming and construction industries, said Sam Chambers, assistant city manager of operations.
Gensler would design a “totally diversified plan” that “would layer on top an international business economy,” Chambers said.
Involving a company with the worldwide reputation of Gensler assures the eventual involvement of major international industries, Chambers said.
“Gensler works with clients around the world,” he said. “If they have confidence in you, the rest of the world has confidence in you.”
Indeed, Chambers said, several impressive business interests have already signaled their desire to be involved.
He wouldn’t identify those interests, saying doing so could harm potential deals.
City officials didn’t go out to bid for development of the master plan because “Gensler is the number one architectural firm in the world,” Chambers said.
“You want people who have done international, mega-projects before. Gensler is the only one here who has that experience.”
City officials have faith in Harris’ abilities, Chambers said, adding that Gensler’s involvement proves Harris is bringing in the right people. He also noted that Dick Rizzo, vice chairman of Perini Building Co., which was the contractor for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, sits on Unibex’s advisory board.
“We’ve done our due diligence,” Chambers said.
Unibex is the “only company here that understands the concept and has come to us with it,” Chambers said. “Unibex has looked around the world to see what works.”
Rob Cousins, a senior associate and project director for Gensler, said Perini, which Gensler worked with on CityCenter, referred Unibex to the company.
Cousins said Gensler would “create a vision” more than a master plan.
“What I believe you need to do as a city is to create a vision to present yourselves to Fortune 500 companies to show them that they should come here,” he said.
Cousins said the city’s previous redevelopment plan, completed a couple years ago, includes “no visual in it to take to a company and say, ‘This is what North Las Vegas is going to look like in 2030.’ You have to compete with other cities.”
Other Council members expressed their support for the concept.
Councilman Richard Cherchio said development of an international business community “has the long-term potential to be one of the biggest stories of our city.”
“The economy won’t get better until we make it better,” he said. “Our job is to take calculated, prudent risks based on information we feel is solid and use funds to do the right thing by the community.”
Councilman William Robinson said the city’s previous redevelopment plan “hasn’t brought a dang thing to the city,” and that Council members need to start “thinking outside of the box.”
“As I see it, you all got to think of something quick to get some money to sustain your city,” he said.
Chambers noted that the city isn’t paying Harris for his work.
Harris said whatever money he makes in the long run will depend on his ability to snag investors and other developers.
“We may get 1 percent from the developers if we put a deal together and make it work,” he said.
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But Harris, who wouldn’t reveal his age, doesn’t come without baggage. He has a long and storied local history.
Harris was one of the first black firefighters in Southern Nevada and was involved in creating what now is the College of Southern Nevada.
He sued the Convention and Visitors Authority in 1975 for racial discrimination after he was fired from his job as assistant tourism manager, according to newspaper reports at the time.
That lawsuit, filed on behalf of Harris, his family and a number of others, alleged in part that the authority benefited the white community to the detriment of the black community.
The lawsuit, which originally sought $12.2 million, was eventually settled for $10,518.
In 1977, Harris founded the nonprofit Southern Nevada Economic Development Council to attract businesses to the black community. The council ran into trouble in the early 1980s when the federal Economic Development Administration withheld a portion of its grant funds to the organization because of alleged misuse of federal funds.
The council in response filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the government deliberately delayed payment of the grant. Information on how the case was resolved was unavailable on Wednesday.
In the mid-1980s, Harris and former state Assemblyman Gene Collins sued several local news organizations, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal, for defamation after the organizations reported that Collins and Harris had been involved in an altercation with Collins’ political rival, Wendell Williams. Williams, who unseated Collins in the 1986 election, was left badly beaten according to police at the time. Harris later dropped out of the suit, which was unsuccessful. Collins was ordered to pay the news organizations’ legal fees.
Buck said she doesn’t believe Harris has the abilities or background to pull off his plan for North Las Vegas.
That plan is “a pie in the sky, a nice idea,” she said. “It’s pretty far-fetched.”
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.