At a recent town hall meeting, Mayor Oscar Goodman touted the city's love for the arts and the "tons of money" that the city has spent on the arts district and other projects, saying, "We don't want to hear that we're not supportive of the arts."
The moment was astonishing considering that the mayor stated in a 2009 Las Vegas Sun article that the city does not need an art museum, that people who want to look at art can buy a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles.
And because the artists and gallery owners in the district have long complained that the city has been anything but helpful, that code enforcement officers harass them and that redevelopment money has gone into other Downtown projects, leaving the arts district behind. They complain of difficulty getting business licenses and permits; of being cited for serving alcohol at art openings; that the codes for opening a gallery are the same as that of a museum, creating more stringent and costly regulations. Some have gone so far as to open a gallery, but not call it a gallery (opting for something like "studio") because they couldn't afford to install museum-level restrooms. Some didn't bother and went elsewhere, according to Wes Myles, owner of the Arts Factory. Also, these folks argue, the licensing and permitting process could be streamlined so that opening a studio or gallery wouldn't be so difficult.
But the real problem seems to be in believing that the designation of the area as an "arts district" makes it easy for artists and gallery owners to move into the area. Not so much.
"It takes all seven departments to say yes before you can do business in the city, and they don't talk to each other," says Myles. "They've never tried to take away the layers of bureaucracy."
Most gallery owners are afraid to talk on the record about problems with the city, for fear of retaliation, which sums up the level of paranoia. Even gallery owner Brett Sperry complained of problems with the city when building his Brett Wesley Gallery, but didn't go public with it at the time for fear that it would harm his project.
Scott Adams, the city's chief urban development officer, says the agency has been very open and willing to structure incentives on a project, and that its Fast Track Program is designed to explain all of the requirements that the city imposes on property.
In regard to citations, Adams said, "It's a bit naïve for a business owner to think they can do whatever they want, whether it's serving alcohol or moving out onto the sidewalk for an event." Alcohol, he says, is regulated, and having events on streets and sidewalks creates safety issues.
Also, Adams says, the arts district has not been forgotten. The agency's Visual Improvement Project matches property owners dollar-for-dollar on visual improvements to their buildings up to $50,000, whether it's a costly overhaul to the façade or a repainting.
Its Tax Increment Financing offers rebate incentives for projects in the area, and the city recently began waiving its Urban Lounge licensing fee of $50,000 at the urging of Myles, who has been trying to create a bar in the area.
Adams says the arts district is poised for a real run when the economy stabilizes and that more and more investors are going to see potential in the area. Part of this, he says, is due to projects recently completed or under way. That includes a park behind the Arts Factory, created using $700,000 of Southern Nevada Public Land Management funds, and a new 18b arts district sign, installed on Casino Center Boulevard by the Regional Transportation Commission (more than 100 18b Arts District signs are to be installed this year). Last year, the city completed "Atomic Passage," a public art project funded by the city's Percent for Arts Program, which allocates 1 percent of all capital projects in the city to public art. The benches and inlayed sidewalk designs along Casino Center (between Charleston and Colorado) are part of a $2 million streetscape enhancement that included new lampposts and the planting of about 50 trees along the RTC bus route.
David Mozes, managing principal of the Mission Las Vegas, a development project planned for the arts district, says that the improvement projects in the area got him interested in developing there. He also says that the area is very development-friendly because the arts district overlay in the city's Centennial Plan has fewer barriers of entry for developers than other areas in Las Vegas: "It's very inviting to come and build in the arts district. There are not a lot of codes that are blindly regulating. We've been working on this for the past two and a half years. We found it to be a relatively easy project."