After 4 hours of listening to testimony for those supporting and opposing Wayne Newton’s planned Casa de Shenandoah entertainment attraction, County Commissioner Steve Sisolak started a sentence by saying, “You know, we could have 10 more meetings ...”
You could feel the room brace, as if to say, “Please, God, no.
But Sisolak finished the sentence, “and not learn anything we don’t already know about this project. Everyone who has wanted to be heard has been heard.”
After an approval process that seemed to last so long that Newton could have constructed the entire proposed complex as the debate played out, Mr. Las Vegas finally won unanimous support from County Commissioners present today (absent Chris Giunchigliani) to build a museum and showroom across Sunset Road from Shenandoah and to shuttle fans through his famous estate.
“I couldn’t be more happy with the decision that the commission made,” Newton, obviously relieved, said afterward. “I am happy, too, that maybe some of the neighbors heard some of the truth about the project for the first time.”
Many neighbors feared that Newton was seeking to open some sort of hybrid of Graceland and Disneyland, replete with Ferris wheels, circus tents and a mirrored funhouse.
But even as those particular fears were allayed during a series of meetings with his neighbors dating to a Sept. 20 meeting at La Quinta on Sunset Road, Newton met strong resistance at every step. During October’s Paradise Town Board Meeting, that board voted not to recommend approval to the county Newton’s request for a use permit (33 speaking in opposition to the project, 11 in favor). But he won where it mattered, acing today’s performance before a sometimes skeptical but uniformly patient and attentive Clark County Commission.
What is in store for those residents near Casa de Shenandoah — not to mention the thousands of fans expected to visit the property when it opens to the public about a year from now — is a multifold entertainment attraction and touring facility. Positioned across Sunset Road, on 10 acres of land purchased for $10 million by investor and developer Steve Kennedy near the northwest corner of Sunset and Pecos roads, will be a Las Vegas entertainment history museum and theater.
The museum will be filled with artifacts and mementos from Newton’s career, along with other items from entertainers who have some sort of connection to Vegas. Newton has described the showroom as a 600-seat venue that looks a little like the old Copa Room at the Sands.
“We have the football hall of fame, the baseball hall of fame ... but there is no entertainment hall of fame,” Newton said. “So people like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis ... don’t have that type of hall of fame. Now they will.”
Those opposing the project were less concerned about the land across from Shenandoah, which will take over the spot now occupied by the Napa Valley Pottery & Floral building, than the activity at the estate itself. Shuttles will carry fans inside the gates of Shenandoah, and guests will be let off to check out Newton’s Fokker F-28 jet, his dozens of Arabian horses, the “zoo” of exotic animals (including peacocks, wallabies and African penguins) and his garage full of fancy automobiles.
Residents and representatives of nearby Equestrian Estates and Sierra Vista Ranchos addressed the board with concerns of increased traffic, lights and noise coming from an area that they stressed has for decades been set in a rural preservation area.
Of course, over the years businesses have sprouted along Sunset Way and Pecos Roads, nearly ringing Shenandoah. But Las Vegas administrative law attorney Chris Kaempfer, representing Anthony Marnell II, who lives near Shenandoah, said it was Newton himself who began the trend of commercializing the area. He noted that Newton sold the land across Pecos, to the east of Shenandoah, to Rebel Oil so that company could build a Rebel convenience store and gas station.
“That was in 1993, and that was the only crack in the neighborhood shield,” Kaempfer said. But prior to today’s meeting, Newton had already made significant adjustments to his original plan, changing the entrance-exit points for tour buses from Tomiyasu Lane to the west of the estate to Sunset Road. That means no buses will be carrying visitors south of Sunset Road, an important change because Tomiyasu is already a major concern for residents in the area because it is filled with heavy-footed motorists who use it as an alternate route to Pecos Road.
However, there will be traffic challenges now on Sunset Road, with buses having to perform short-distance merges to work across traffic in returning to the museum across the street. That’s why the commission is awaiting a Nevada Department of Transportation traffic study of the area before formally issuing Newton his use permit to move forward with construction.
Also adjusted in the final proposal to the commission was the planned wedding pavilion — that center was taken off the plans, totally, so there is no, shall we say, public option for weddings at Casa de Shenandoah. But Newton said he will continue to host private weddings, as he has over the years, at the estate.
Other arguments fell flat. One contention that there was a safety concern for neighbors because Shenandoah is a ranch for horses was swiftly dismissed; Shenandoah has been a ranch for horses since Newton moved onto the property in 1965. Newton promised to plant tall evergreen trees to shield the Fokker; conditions set by Sisolak before the vote called for strict hours of operation (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during daylight savings time, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during Pacific Standard Time), no amplified music coming from Shenandoah, and an average of six buses per hour crossing Sunset Road during hours of operation.
Near the end of the meeting, Kathleen Newton addressed the board, though she’d been advised not to by Newton’s counsel, Jay Brown (land use consultant Greg Borgel also represented the family).
“Wayne moved to Shenandoah in the early 1960s, and he did not buy a ranch. He built a ranch. This house you’re talking about is the house I woke up in today, the house my husband woke up in today and the house our daughter woke up in today,” she said in a halting voice, trying to appease concerned neighbors who might feel the Newtons are turning the neighborhood into a circus attraction.
“Shenandoah is our home, and it will always be our home.”
More from the meeting? Of course!
• During the lengthy session, Commission Chairman Rory Reid lit into Kennedy for his lawsuit against M.J. Harvey, an activist who lives in the Paradise area who has spoken out against the project. “I don’t know Steve Kennedy in this sea of faces, but that (lawsuit) is beyond wrong.” Through Brown, Kennedy was quick to note that the lawsuit accused Harvey of making false statements about him and the project, then said he would dismiss the suit entirely.
• Sisolak said the conduct of a “small minority” of opponents of the project was borderline abusive. “I’ve heard some totally inappropriate comments directed at me and my staff, I’ve had a finger poked in my chest,” he said. “This has been as contentious an issue as I’ve seen. That’s not how we do business in Clark County.”
• People of note in the audience: Gerry McCambridge (The Mentalist at V Theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood), Rudy Ruettiger, Rich Natole and Dirk Arthur. McCambridge is a friend of the Newtons and spoke on behalf of the project, saying he’d rather take his kids to Shenandoah than either of the proposed mob museums under construction in Las Vegas. Ruettiger’s production company has been filming a documentary about Newton. Natole also is a Newton friend who played the role of “Manager” in Newton’s stage show at Tropicana. As for Arthur, he was there coincidentally. The O’Sheas headliner was getting his permit to care for the white tiger in his show renewed.
• Newton said the term “Graceland West” is not his but one used by opponents of the project. “Elvis was a dear friend, but to use Graceland as a way to promote what we’re doing would not be right,” he said. “It’s Shenandoah, and it will always be Shenandoah.”
• One representative opposing the project stated to the board that Newton had been declined a gaming license by gaming regulators. Not so. Newton had a gaming license and had it renewed when he owned the Aladdin.
• Though voting to approve the plan, Commissioner Tom Collins said he doubted the estimation of 500,000 visitors annually to Shenandoah would ever be achieved “in my lifetime.” Councilman Larry Brown asked for, and received, a detailed video tour of the Shenandoah estate to see precisely where shuttles and people would be delivered before he voted yes. Councilman Lawrence Weekly got off the best line of the day when he confessed, “I did something I don’t normally do, and that’s pick up the phone and vote for Wayne Newton on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ He’s got two left feet, but I had to vote for Mr. Las Vegas.”
• Leave it to Sen. Richard Bryan to instill some sanity into the lengthy public forum segment of the approval process. “As Mo Udall once said, ‘We have heard all there is to say, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.’ ” Now, you can look up who Mo Udall was.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.