Of all the issues the City of Mesquite has on its plate, which are the four most important ones to deal with in the next one to two years?
That’s the question the city council, mayor, and manager spent five and a half hours deciding when they met for a strategic planning session on Jan. 27.
In private interviews, three council members, George Gault, Annie Black, and Brian Wursten, along with City Manager Aaron Baker, gave their opinions and insight into the session.
All agreed the planning session was an overall success. “I think we all came to a consensus of our top four goals,” Gault said. “How we get there will be the interesting part.”
The council set four goals for city staff to work on in this order of importance: Workforce housing, recreational and sports tourism; downtown development, and workforce education and preparation.
Baker said having specific goals will help city staff focus its time and attention on those issues the council has deemed the most important. “I’m excited about having the goals in front of us. It sends a message to staff and makes it easier to manage the organization. We can get away from the ‘shotgun’ approach of working on issues. All of us on staff appreciate having a unified direction,” he said.
“We will work on the ‘hows’ of reaching success on each of these goals,” Baker said. “We will offer the council options on each of the tasks and they will decide which ones they are most comfortable with and want us to follow up on.”
When discussing downtown development, Councilwoman Black said it’s more on the lines of beautification and improving the optics of Mesquite Boulevard. “We can use RDA (Redevelopment Agency) funds to help business owners improve the appearances of their properties. That’s what the RDA money is intended to do. That’s our carrot.”
She added that the council or city doesn’t intend on building or paying to build any new structures. “We can use the funds and the city’s influence to incentivize property owners and businesses to paint, add new signs, and generally improve appearances. Perhaps we can change the guidelines to allow the funds to be used for things we don’t now allow.”
Gault agrees that workforce housing is the highest priority for the city to work on. He has worked with a workforce housing task force for several years, some before he was elected to council.
He frankly admitted that not much had been accomplished. “It’s been frustrating. We’ve tried to structure three or four deals but haven’t completed one. We’ve relied on the Nevada Rural Housing Authority to be our housing authority, but they have priorities other than those in Mesquite. We need to create our own housing authority just for Mesquite, with its own staff.”
He said that the Nevada Rural Housing Authority owns 11 acres on Hillside Drive, next to I-15 that “could be our big break if they would build some affordable housing on it.”
All three council members said they would consider approving some method of the city helping developers lower building costs in order to provide workforce and affordable housing. All three said any deal or agreement had to be in the city’s best interest and protect the city from default by the developer.
Baker said, “Any risks associated with those kinds of projects should be borne by the developer and not by the taxpayer.”
Wursten is most closely aligned with Mesquite’s sports tourism industry through his position as Director of Golf for Mesquite Gaming. As he discussed the second most important goal of increasing and improving sports and recreational tourism he said, “Right now, we can’t sustain new businesses in Mesquite because we don’t have the workforce numbers and there are not enough people who visit in the shoulder seasons.”
He explained that increasing tourism is a chicken-or-the-egg quandary. “There are weekends in the winter and spring when we have so many activities and the hotels are booked solid. But other times we’re empty. How do we get people to come here in the hot weather summer months? If we can figure that out, it will allow businesses to sustain themselves year-round.”
He suggested building indoor sports facilities that would be more comfortable in summer. However, he pointed out that until more hotel rooms are built, during heavy winter weekends one sport tends to harm other sports.
“Right now, we cannot sustain more visitors than we currently have,” Wursten said. “When the soccer fields are full during a weekend tournament, we don’t have enough rooms to house them. And then, the golf industry gets hurt because there aren’t enough places to put them. Our golf courses suffer and we lose a lot of golfers because the city is filled by other sport attendees.
“We don’t have the workforce to sustain more businesses. When one business raises its wages, it tends to draw more workers from other businesses in town rather than new workers from out of town,” he said.
Wursten said that solving the chicken-egg dilemma basically requires hotel rooms to be built first and then the city can build more sports fields. “We can build fields a lot faster than hotels can be built. Hotels need to commit first and the city can quickly follow.”
The idea of improving workforce training hinged on increasing educational opportunities, mainly through expansion of classes at the College of Southern Nevada Mesquite campus. Wursten said he wanted to provide more training programs for younger people who could stay in the community and work locally while pursuing a two-year associate degree.
Wursten said all of the issues discussed at the planning session depend on making progress on workforce housing that would allow businesses to bring in more workers.
Baker said future success of the strategic planning session will depend on “everyone staying in their lane. The council has decided the what. Staff will provide the how-to.”