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Frustrations aside, Las Vegas ain’t all bad

It’s easy to get down on Las Vegas, especially during these dog days of triple-digit summer. We’re aggravated by the inadequate roads and highways. We’re frustrated about the underfunded schools. We feel helpless about an economy wholly dependent on distant vacationers. We’re bewildered by parents who kill a mentally disabled child by leaving him in a hot car for 17 hours.

Las Vegas can be tough to take sometimes.

But last week, in a coincidence of timing, I spent time in three different places that gave me a great feeling about Las Vegas. These experiences reminded me that Las Vegas, for all its faults, is home to some wonderful people and institutions.

Let’s start with Bonnie Springs Ranch. Maybe you know the place. It’s the petting zoo with the miniature train and the mock Old West town out in Red Rock Canyon. It’s a great place to take the kids. It also has a restaurant, bar and motel for those who want to escape the urban mélange for a day or two.

What many people don’t know is that Bonnie Springs is named for Bonnie Levinson, the owner. And Bonnie, who has lived on the 115-acre ranch since 1952, is still alive and kicking, tending to the zoo animals and other matters at age 86.

Last week, I spent three hours talking with Bonnie, listening to her tell stories about her adventurous life. She grew up in Hollywood, where her father, Wilbur McGaugh, was an actor and assistant director, playing a key role in the production of dozens of movies and television series.

As a teenager, Bonnie performed as a dancer and ice-skater, but as a young woman she grew tired of the entertainment scene. She came to Las Vegas and found a broken-down bar and three-room house 20 miles west of town. She reopened the bar, attracting customers from nearby Blue Diamond, as well as groups of Las Vegas showgirls taking a break from the limelight.

Bonnie lived there without electricity for 12 years, living a lifestyle not unlike the characters in the Westerns her father directed.

There is much more to Bonnie Levinson’s story, and she enjoys telling it. But she prefers spending time with her beloved animals, including wolves, deer, buffalo and wallabies. Those are just the exotic denizens, of course, because she’s got dogs, cats, rabbits and chickens, too. Many of them were dumped there by irresponsible pet owners.

Bonnie is a priceless remnant of the pre-corporate, pre-urban Las Vegas, when people in these parts lived closer to the land. The economic downturn is having an effect on her business, so if you’re looking for a good place to spend a fraction of your stimulus check, I’d suggest an outing to Bonnie Springs Ranch. (Go to www.bonniesprings.com for more info.)

Two days later, I found myself in Henderson, having lunch at the Opus Too restaurant, part of the Art Institute’s International Culinary School. This was white linen dining produced by the school’s student cooks and wait staff. The meal was impressive, and the students who served us did a great job.

Among other things, the lunch highlighted the fact that young Las Vegans who choose not to pursue a traditional college degree have other legitimate options. More than ever before, Las Vegas boasts a vast array of trade schools enabling young people to leap confidently into rewarding careers.

If you’ve ever received bad service or bad food in a Las Vegas restaurant, I’d be very surprised to learn that an International Culinary School graduate had anything to do with it. (To learn more, go to www.artinstitutes.edu/lasvegas.)

My third uplifting stop of the week was the Three Square food bank, near Craig and Pecos roads. Three Square replaced the Clark County Community Food Bank, which had not been up to the challenge of feeding the community’s hungry legions.

Three Square, under the passionate leadership of Julie Murray, is destined to become one of the most vibrant and valuable nonprofit service agencies in town. The organization has already made giant leaps in just its first year and a half in existence. But it’ll have to keeping growing if it wants to meet the huge challenge it faces.

Consider some numbers: There are 210,000 people living in poverty in Clark County. In order to keep those men, women and children from going hungry, the food bank must distribute 49 million pounds of food per year.

The best that Three Square’s predecessor could do was distribute 1.6 million pounds per year. In 2008, its first full year of operation, Three Square expects to distribute 10 million pounds. That’s a huge improvement, but just a fifth of the amount needed.

While Three Square is a traditional food bank, providing a central warehouse for food distribution, that is just one part of its mission. Murray and her board of directors, which includes many high-profile business leaders, have developed several innovative programs to get food into the hands of those who need it.

For example, Three Square is addressing the nutrition needs of hungry children by filling their backpacks each Friday with nonperishable food items to keep them going during the weekend. After being tested in several schools last year, the program will expand to all 335 schools in the community starting next month.

By the way, if it hasn’t already crossed your mind, Three Square is going to need a large number of volunteers to get all that food ready for the backpacks each week. (If you want to do your part, go to www.threesquare.org for more information.)

I was reminded last week that it’s important to view Las Vegas through a wide lens. It’s not just the Strip. It’s not just your subdivision. Las Vegas has its problems, no doubt about it. You hear about them in this space all the time. But there are great people here in all walks of life, and there are great institutions doing important work.

Bonnie Levinson, Julie Murray and the students at the International Culinary School reminded me that Las Vegas ain’t all bad.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Sunday.

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