Henderson’s Water Street District Brings the Past to Life.
The city of Henderson is all about re-invention, re-imagining, and redevelopment. Starting out as a small town built around an industrial plant, it today sprawls across more than 105 square miles, from the M Resort in the west to Lake Las Vegas in the east. Although more than 277,000 people now call Henderson home, many of them have never even visited downtown Henderson, the place where it all started.
At the heart of the Henderson story is the Water Street District which began as the city’s original “Main Street” back in the 1940s. During World War II, the Basic Magnesium Plant was built in the desert between Boulder City and Las Vegas to supply metal needed for munitions and airplane parts. A small town grew up to house and supply the plant’s 14,000 employees, but when the war ended, the town almost ended, too. In 1947, the federal government planned to sell the entire town as war surplus property. However, the Nevada Legislature wasn’t ready to give up on Henderson and managed to save it. The scrappy little town that refused to die was incorporated in 1953 with 13-square miles of land and about 7,400 residents.
As late as the 1970s, getting to Henderson from Las Vegas required a long drive down Boulder Highway. With the development of Green Valley, beginning in 1978, and the extension of Highway 95 in the 1980s, the two cities gradually grew closer together. Although a line on the map today separates Las Vegas and Henderson in many places, Henderson has always maintained an independent identity.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Water Street, which has clung to its small town roots through good times and bad. The City of Henderson Redevelopment Agency established the Water Street District to breathe life back into an area of empty storefronts and vacant lots along the once-bustling main street. Rather than give in to the trend toward big-box stores and cookie-cutter franchises, the city elected to maintain the historic character of the district. It provides grants and loans to help new businesses get started and assist existing businesses that want to remodel and expand. The Water Street District is now home to a myriad of mom-and-pop businesses that include art galleries, gift shops, a bakery, cafes, and locals casinos.
To attract more visitors to downtown, Henderson sponsors a variety of special events, including the St. Patrick’s Day Festival and Parade in March, the Henderson Heritage Parade and Festival in April, and the Super Run Classic Car Show in September. Every week there’s some reason to visit downtown, whether it’s a family bicycle rally, an art festival, or the Henderson Farmers Market held each Thursday. And that’s not counting all the special events and meetings held at the Henderson Events Plaza & Henderson Convention Center.
Walk down Water Street on a quiet afternoon, and it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 1960s. The business owners I recently spoke with share the same spirit of re-invention as their city. Flemming Pedersen, the owner of Chef Flemming’s BakeShop on Water Street, moved to Henderson in 1980 to work as an executive pastry chef for several local casinos. When he and his wife Cheré decided to open their own bakery in 2008, they chose downtown Henderson because of its potential for growth. Although the shop opened just as the recession was hitting southern Nevada, it has managed to survive due to its growing reputation for special-occasion cakes, as well as Danish pastries and other goodies baked fresh on the premises.
The Purple Monkey on Water Street features handcrafted jewelry and gifts created by local artists and sold on consignment. Like Chef Flemming, owners Linda Martin and Linda Lamb decided to become entrepreneurs after being employees for many years. “It’s so fulfilling to be in the middle between people who create art and people who love it,” said Linda Martin, who moved from the East Coast to Henderson five years ago. “When I was looking for a store location, I was immediately drawn to Water Street. It’s the last of the small-town streets in the valley, except for Boulder City.” The women also own the shop next door—The Shabby Sheep—which sells furniture, antiques and collectables. Many of the items in their shops are recycled or re-imagined, such as drinking glasses made from liquor bottles, vintage furniture painted in bright polka dots, and birdhouses constructed of found materials.
A favorite locals hangout on Water Street is the Gold Mine Tavern, which was a gritty biker bar for many years after its establishment in 1965. In keeping with downtown’s spirit of reinvention, it has transformed itself into a friendly neighborhood hangout Manager Stacy DeMarco likens to the bar in Cheers. When I visited, people painting canvases supplied by the Paint and Party Company filled the bar and patio. That’s just one of the many creative marketing ideas DeMarco and her staff have developed to bring in business. Others include live music, poker runs, bachelor parties, and Cigars Under the Stars. Born and raised in Las Vegas, DeMarco calls Water Street “Southern Nevada’s Mayberry Street.”
Tim Brooks has been the president of the Water Street District Business Association since 2011, and is so bullish on the city that in July he’ll become the chairman of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce. Brooks and his brother, Michael, own the Emerald Island Casino, billed as “Nevada’s only all-penny casino” because every slot machine takes only pennies. The property had been vacant for three years when the brothers decided to take the plunge in 2003 and open Emerald Island to serve Henderson locals. They succeeded where the previous owners failed, and the property has undergone three expansions since then. Brooks said it operates the only 24-hour restaurant in downtown Henderson and brings in faithful customers from as far away from Summerlin.
An important part of downtown Henderson’s redevelopment is its commitment to the arts. Each year on Mother’s Day weekend, the city hosts the two-day Art Festival of Henderson. Downtown is also home to two art galleries, Elayne La Porta Fine Art and City Lights Gallery. Founded in 2003, City Lights is an artists’ cooperative that displays works by local artists, offers art classes, funds mini-grants to local teachers, and gives scholarships to art students. While it’s designed to serve Henderson residents, it also hosts two juried art shows a year open to anyone in southern Nevada. Ed Klein, Shows Director at City Lights, also teaches watercolor classes at the gallery. He explained that the co-op’s members are committed to the principle that art brings added quality to a community and its residents.
According to Michelle Romero, redevelopment manager for the Henderson Redevelopment Agency, several new downtown projects are in the works. Construction will begin his summer on a 6,000-square-foot microbrewery called the Lovelady Brewing Company. Groundbreaking will begin soon for Southend on Water, a two-story, mixed-use building with office, residential, and retail space fronting on Water Street. Tin Pan Flats, still in the planning stages, would offer apartments, eating venues, and a bicycle hub.
Downtown Henderson has a lot to offer southern Nevada families looking for a getaway that’s close by, but feels like a trip to another time and place. Check out the city’s calendar of events and attend a lively street festival, or just set your calendar back to the 1960s and take a leisurely stroll down Water Street.
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