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Springs Preserve slowly goes for gold with new tortoise habitat

After creeping along for seven years, the Springs Preserve has decided to get cold-blooded about improving its bottom line.

Operators of the 180-acre attraction plan to add about a half-dozen desert tortoises to a new enclosure to be built near the northwest corner of the property at Valley View Boulevard and U.S. Highway 95.

Clark County Commissioners signed off on the 15-acre exhibit Tuesday, moments before they picked a new operator to run the cafe at the Springs Preserve.

Both moves are part of a continuing effort to draw more people and improve the finances for the $235 million collection of interactive exhibits, green buildings and desert plants, which was built by the Las Vegas Valley Water District and is kept afloat in part by valley water customers.

Since the district opened the Springs Preserve in June 2007, it has soaked up more than $40 million in water district subsidies.

Also, the valley’s largest water utility will spend the next 25 years or so repaying roughly $160 million it borrowed for construction of the monument to sustainable desert living.

The new tortoise exhibit will be built using almost $80,000 from the Clark County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which was adopted in 2000 to allow development to continue in the Las Vegas Valley by offsetting the impact on federally protected species, including the tortoise. Developers pay a $550 per-acre fee to the conservation program.

Water district spokesman Scott Huntley said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will handpick tortoises to reside at the Springs Preserve. They either will be of the same gender or will be sterilized, he said.

“They’re not going to reproduce, put it that way,” Huntley said.

The federally protected reptiles will be introduced to their new home in October 2015. The exhibit will be finished and open by January 2016.

Transition at the Spring Preserve cafe should happen far faster. The cafe closed Dec. 31 with the departure of its second operator in six years. Huntley said the goal is for the new operator, DiVine Events, to reopen the restaurant by late spring after the County Commission approves a management contract.

Five catering and restaurant companies bid to run the cafe. Commissioners selected DiVine on Tuesday.

Huntley acknowledged Springs Preserve remains a work in progress seven years after it opened and may have been overbuilt to begin with.

The project was conceived and mostly constructed during the community’s most recent big boom, he said.

“Things that you did back then in the late 1990s and early 2000s you might not do in the same way today, clearly,” Huntley said.

That said, the attraction has increased annual visitation from about 160,000 the first year to more than 250,000 last year while reducing its water district operational subsidy from almost $11 million a year to about $5 million.

“And we’re very slowly dropping that, though the increments downward are harder to achieve,” Huntley said.

He added that before the Springs Preserve was built, the water district spent about $2.5 million annually on a much smaller desert demonstration garden now folded into the larger attraction.

The upcoming tortoise exhibit is just the latest addition to the preserve, which in the past year gained a solar demonstration home designed and built by UNLV students for an international competition and a trackless train that carries visitors on a narrated history tour.

Late this year, four historic railroad cottages that were some of the first homes built in downtown Las Vegas will be restored and open for tours on the property.

“Things are kind of being added to the mix,” Huntley said. “More things for people to see. More reasons for people to come back.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.

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