Talking about the El Paso County Enterprise Zone won't score you popularity points around the water cooler. But on Feb. 8 in the meeting room of the Travelodge at 1703 S. Nevada Ave., that very subject (and others of similar snooze-power) holds the attention of business owners better than a Britney Spears ambulance ride.
About 15 members of the South Nevada merchants group are here to learn how to take back their street. If that means understanding money sources and nuisance laws, so be it.
At this meeting, the "little merchants group that could" takes advice from experts. Among them: City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, County Commissioner Sallie Clark, El Paso County Economic Development Manager DeAnne McCann and El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman.
Some highlights of their brainstorming session:
McCann explains the group could apply to make South Nevada part of an enterprise zone. If approved, the state would recognize the area as "economically distressed" and offer tax incentives to businesses that locate or expand there. To start, they simply fill out an application.
"Is there an official redevelopment plan for this area?" McCann asks.
The merchants look at each other blankly. Heimlicher, one of the group's catalysts, answers.
"Yes and no," he says, explaining that a plan is in the works.
That assertion concerns Don Schley, principal of Aeon Projects Development Ltd., and director of project management programs for Colorado Technical University. He notes that some of the area's upscale businesses (The Blue Star, Edelweiss, Bristol Brewing Co.) popped up on their own.
"How does the development plan affect that?" Schley asks.
Heimlicher insists any plan would be developer-friendly.
One of the plan's priorities will be cleaning up the Chief and Cheyenne motels, largely cited as drawing a criminal element.
That subject elicits the most response from the group, which otherwise seems content to listen. Lynn Karnes, owner of Continental Cleaners, is especially vocal, saying he won't stop until the hotels are closed.
"It seems like City Council are the ... people who have the power to shut these guys down," he says.
Heimlicher notes he's working with the police chief to ensure ordinances are enforced, and he's exploring ordinances with "more teeth." But he and Clark admit the process is slow.
Lowderman addresses the hotel problem from an assessor's perspective, saying motels causing problems may be taxed at a lower rate if they provide longer-term housing. That's because they can be classified (or partially classified) as residential. Lowderman says he can't do much to crack down on the tax benefit, even if it's being abused. As a rule, assessors only check if there's a change in ownership; to single out the motels would be unfair, he says.
As for concerns of homeless wandering onto property, Joe Milligan of Springs Rescue Mission says merchants should direct the needy to his nearby shelter.
What else could help? Perhaps federal grants to spruce up the area, incentives for developers offered through urban renewal, or a special improvement maintenance district ensuring appearances are kept up to par. The subjects are touched on, and the merchants are promised more information at next month's meeting.
Phil Boatright, owner of Discount Exhaust Works, says he's satisfied with progress.
"I think there's a voice."