North Las Vegas has come a long way

What a difference 20 years makes.

In 1988, I was assigned, among other things, to cover North Las Vegas. As a cub reporter eager to make my mark in the news business, I embraced the opportunity. After all, at that time North Las Vegas had quite a reputation.

North Las Vegas — or “Northtown” — was considered to be the bad part of town. The wrong side of the tracks. A cesspool of crime and corruption. The late, great Hunter S. Thompson famously described North Las Vegas as “Nevada’s answer to East St. Louis — a slum and a graveyard, last stop before permanent exile to Ely or Winnemucca.”

This is the stuff of a young journalist’s dreams.

Did the city’s reputation represent reality? Not entirely. It didn’t take long to see that the relatively large African-American population in North Las Vegas was the primary factor in scaring off “respectable folks.”

But racial fears weren’t the city’s only challenge in overcoming the wider community’s deep-seated bias. North Las Vegas simply was not keeping pace with Las Vegas, Henderson and unincorporated Clark County.

The roads were bad. Parks and recreation centers were scarce. Retail offerings and restaurants were few and far between. There were few new subdivisions, and many of the older ones were in poor shape. Redlining was the unwritten rule.

While Las Vegas and Henderson were growing into modern municipalities, North Las Vegas was struggling to tread water.

Twenty years later, North Las Vegas is a dramatically different place. It’s evolved from the civic stepchild of Southern Nevada into a competitive, modern city of 215,000 people, with prospects to more than double in size before it’s done. When Mayor Mike Montandan delivered his annual State of the City address earlier this month, he had a host of big and exciting things to tell the 800 attendees.

And the turning point occurred 20 years ago, when I was covering North Las Vegas.

In 1988, city officials knew a growth boom was coming to the valley. They saw the rise of Green Valley in Henderson and could envision the prospects for Summerlin in Las Vegas. They saw Steve Wynn building The Mirage on the Strip. They needed to figure out how not to get left behind.

The spark came in the form of a piece of public land. The city secured 1,080 acres of federal park land in the northern reaches of the municipality and invited major home builders to submit bids to build a master-planned community.

Three bids came in, and the city selected one from Pardee Homes. Pardee was chosen for several reasons, but mostly because the city believed the builder’s excellent reputation could overcome the city’s negative image and convince people to buy homes in the new planned community.

Pardee was attracted by the low cost of the land ($5,000 per acre) and by the fact that the parcel was several miles away from the much-derided urban core of North Las Vegas.

The planned community, dubbed Eldorado, was marketed as the valley’s next suburban frontier. Skeptics abounded, but when Pardee opened its sales office in 1990, potential home buyers formed a long line to get a closer look. The development was an instant success.

Today, Eldorado seems modest compared with the valley’s top master-planned brands, but it nevertheless was the beginning of a new era for North Las Vegas.

North Las Vegas joined the growth boom of the ’90s and got another shot of adrenaline in 2002 when developers broke ground for the Aliante planned community, which has eclipsed Eldorado as the premier neighborhood in the city that only old-timers still call Northtown. In the meantime, the city has done much to improve its public facilities, from street improvements to parks and libraries.

Mayor Montandon’s laundry list of upcoming civic and commercial projects is impressive, from a $295 million VA hospital to the conversion of Craig Ranch Golf Course into a regional park rivaling the south valley’s venerable Sunset Park. North Las Vegas still trails Henderson in the prestige department, but it’s a major player in the Southern Nevada economy.

After 20 years of significant progress, North Las Vegas has earned a pep rally. But once the applause dies down, it’s important to understand that there’s still a lot of work to do.

Mesmerized by its shiny new suburbs, the city of North Las Vegas has neglected the original, older parts of town, which are plagued by crime, poverty and decay. Some decrepit downtown areas have not changed or have gotten worse since I roamed the streets as a reporter in the late ’80s.

Ambitious redevelopment plans exist on paper. City leaders estimate that $1 billion will be invested in projects within the downtown area over the next 10 years.

Let’s hope so. It’s clear that North Las Vegas has erased much of its image problem and become a big-time player in the suburban growth field. But the next phase of the city’s maturation is to revive its core.

Neighboring Las Vegas is doing this in a big way. Henderson is working hard at it as well. Even Clark County has recognized that it needs to dedicate more resources to its older neighborhoods.

Redevelopment is not easy. It’s gritty, often frustrating work, much harder than throwing up houses and shopping centers on raw desert. But it’s more satisfying work, too, generating a greater sense of accomplishment than rubber-stamping the next cookie-cutter subdivision or fast-food row.

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming Feb. 5, “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Sunday.

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