The drivers, parked in a row, peer out the windows of their shiny SUVs and luxury sedans cautiously.
Outside, some tenants of the motel next door have spilled into the Continental Cleaners parking lot and are actively engaged in a screaming match. The dry cleaner's patrons, in their crisp designer clothes, bite their lips. They make a run for the store's doors.
No skirmish is going to keep them from that $1.60-a-garment dry cleaning.
But Lynn Karnes, owner of Continental Cleaners on South Nevada Avenue, is tired of the motel crowd giving his customers the willies.
"When the chief of police is a customer of mine, and he comes in and tells me that sometimes he's glad he has a gun when he comes here, that tells me we have a real problem here that needs to be solved," Karnes says.
He isn't alone. Small-business owners along the most depressed section of South Nevada Avenue are banding together. They have something in common: They see the promise of a clean, thriving business district where many others see little more than a vortex of criminal activity.
These hopeful business owners call themselves the South Nevada Merchants Association, and with the help of police, City Council and County Commissioners, they just might take back the neighborhood.
Step 1: Empower
Bill Kenline, co-owner of the area's Econo Lodge, is heading up the organization, which is concentrating on beautification, attracting new business and stopping crime. Kenline says people think South Nevada is worse than it is.
True, there's crime, but the cars in his parking lot don't get broken into. He sees panhandling, drug deals and prostitution, but he thinks that overall, the area's troubles have dissipated in recent years.
"I think the public perception is far worse than the reality is," Kenline says.
But word of mouth, true or not, can kill business. Kenline says he'll sometimes book rooms for out-of-towners, only to have them cancel when their Springs relatives tell them the area is sketchy. Other times, though, families will stay in his motel and come back the next year, saying they feel comfortable and love how close the motel is to area attractions.
Indeed, the area is near downtown and The Broadmoor, and is buffered by the fancy, revitalized Lowell neighborhood, the modernized Broadmoor Towne Center, tidy lower-to-middle-income neighborhoods, and even fancy restaurants like The Blue Star and Edelweiss.
"[Fixing the area] is not a big problem, because it's a small neighborhood," Kenline says. "If you look at Tejon Street a block away, it's a whole world apart."
One year after Kenline and a handful of local business owners organized, they have attracted 21 members and are collecting dues of $100 a year (with some giving more). One goal is putting flags on light poles as a way to spruce up the area aesthetically. The group already has a third of the money needed for that project, and is hoping the flags could appear in late spring.
After that, the group has much bigger goals. And the members already have some help.
Step 2: Make friends
One of their most ardent fans is City Councilor Jerry Heimlicher, who has been working with the group for about six months. He says banners won't do a lot of good if you don't tackle the root of the problem, namely a few ragtag motels that don't check prostitution, drug-dealing and violence on their property.
"It's kind of like, I don't want to say perfuming the pig," he says.
You can't make private business leave, Heimlicher says, but you can enforce nuisance laws (in response to constant 911 calls) and code enforcement. Also, you can take steps to beautify the area.
Heimlicher contacted County Commissioner Sallie Clark for assistance; Clark thinks she can help the group consider options such as creating a business improvement district, which would allow the area to raise its property taxes, then use the money for everything from better lighting and security cameras to new sidewalks to flowerbeds.
An urban-renewal or enterprise-zone classification, which can come if an area is classified by government as "slum and blight" or "economically distressed," could offer financial incentives to business. Clark says she'll present some of the options, and get the group in touch with people that can help.
"I think that the whole community should be participating in this," Clark says, explaining that the best kind of change comes from businesses taking ownership of their community. "It allows businesses already existing to expand and to grow and to make it more attractive to bring more businesses into the area."
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