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April 20, 2015

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Rapid growth continues to shape ‘city of destiny’

A schedule of upcoming events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Henderson:


7-9 p.m.: A live special on the history of Henderson will be broadcast on Las Vegas One, Cox Communication channels 1 and 39. The hosts will be the news station's anchorwoman Deborah Levy and Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson.

8 p.m.: Actor Hal Holbrook performs "Mark Twain Tonight" at the Henderson Pavilion at Liberty Pointe, 250 S. Green Valley Parkway. This is the 50th year that Holbrook has portrayed the legendary author who in his young adulthood was a Nevada newspaper reporter. At intermission, there will be a fireworks display. The performance is free but reservations and tickets are required. Call 384-TICS.


6 p.m.: A U.S. postage cancellation mark commemorating the 50th anniversary of Henderson will be unveiled at the City Council meeting in the council chambers at 240 Water St. The special cancellation will be used on letters and on a special post card commemorating the event.


8 a.m.: Mayor and City Council pancake breakfast at the Henderson Convention Center

10 a.m.: Henderson's 50th Anniversary Parade on Water Street sponsored by Timet, Pioneer and Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp.

Noon: Annual Chili Cook-Off and Car Show at Timet Field at Lake Mead Parkway and Water Street, sponsored by the Henderson Chamber of Commerce.

MAY 10-11

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day: The annual ArtFest of Henderson on Water Street. For more information on upcoming events associated with Henderson's 50th anniversary, call the Henderson Convention Center and Visitors Bureau at 565-2171.

The Henderson of Herman Hagen's boyhood was 13 square miles, a tight-knit government town where practically everyone knew everyone.

Henderson, which today is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its incorporation as a city, now spreads over 95 square miles -- growth that only recently registered with Hagen because in many ways the booming city has managed to maintain much of its small-town charm.

"I was in Seven Hills when I looked out and saw the Henderson Executive Airport and I was shocked because when I was a boy -- when it was Sky Harbor Airport -- it was so far away from where people lived," the 55-year-old mathematics teacher said. "Now here the airport was so close to homes in Henderson. I just couldn't get over it."

Four years ago Henderson overtook Reno as the state's second-largest city. It looks toward continued growth that could result in more than doubling its population to more than a half million people within 20 years. Today's population of 220,000 is a far cry from when Hagen was 3 years old and one of only 5,700 residents.

Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, who believes Henderson is sticking to many of its small-town values, agrees with Hagen, a fellow member of Basic High School's Class of 1966, that the growth has been phenomenal, and quite recent.

"You could stand on parts of Lake Mead Drive, State Route 146, Gibson Road, Stephanie Street and Sunset Road and you could see almost nothing," said Gibson, a Las Vegas-born Henderson resident of 50 years. "And that was in 1995 -- just eight years ago.

"In the area of the Galleria mall, some 5 million square feet of retail has been developed during that period."

In l963 Congress enacted a law directing the secretary of the Interior to convey more than l5,000 acres of land to the city of Henderson, doubling its size, a move Gibson said paved the way for the city's future growth.

Yet, for the next 20 years, Henderson remained a small factory town, seemingly content to stay that way.

Planned community

Then, in the early l980s, Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, began building Henderson's first planned community, Green Valley. It became the model for the transformation of the city.

"Shortly before my father died (in 1989), I took him for a ride through Green Valley where we saw two churches, a park and a golf course under construction and a bunch of homes going up," said Brian Greenspun, editor of the Sun and chairman of American Nevada Corp., builder of Green Valley.

"I asked him if he really envisioned all of this and he said, 'Yes I did. I saw it all, but I was wrong in just one respect. I thought my great- grandchildren would be the ones to build it.' "

Brian Greenspun said it is difficult to separate his father's vision for Henderson from his overall dream for the entire Southern Nevada community.

"It was a vision that began in the mid-to-late 1940s based on the growth of our major industry (gaming) which then was in its infancy," Greenspun said. "He believed that at the end of the workday, people would want to retire to green, wide open spaces and quiet neighborhoods.

"His vision ultimately catapulted Henderson into becoming the state's second-largest city and created a blueprint for all of the other planned communities that followed."

Today Henderson has 23 planned communities completed or under construction and two more on the way, city officials said.

"Henderson is a city born out of a need to produce magnesium metal products during World War II, and it has always had an eye toward its future," said Phil Speight, who has been Henderson's city manager for the last 15 years. "We continue to look ahead because our vision always has been for the highest quality of life for our residents. We probably always will have our small-town values as we grow to become a very large city."

Hagen and his 53-year-old brother Jerry Hagen, a local union pipefitter, say that they miss some aspects of the Henderson of their childhoods.

"It's true that we didn't need to lock our doors," Herman said. "Things are much different now."

But many of the changes are for the better, they said.

"Living in today's houses sure beats those cold mornings when we'd get up and have to hug the heater," Jerry Hagen said. "What I get the biggest kick out of now is seeing all those people from Las Vegas who used to call us 'Hooterville' buying homes in Henderson and moving here."

Gibson, the son of the late, longtime state Sen. James I. Gibson, says he always will have a soft spot for those old neighborhoods around the original town site.

"We all lived pretty much the same, no matter what our station in life was," he said. "We lived in those three-bedroom L-shaped (government-built) homes with the swamp coolers.

"Everybody in our neighborhood lived the same way, whether you were a teacher, a bartender or the chief at Timet, who lived four houses down from us."

Exponential growth

Some specific events in the last two decades have triggered much of the growth of modern Henderson. Speight said he feels the events that have most shaped Henderson during that period include:

But can Henderson continue to keep growing exponentially, and how well can it handle all the growth?

"Since the 1970s that's been our biggest challenge, and it will continue to be," said Robert Brennan, longtime utilities maintenance supervisor in the city's Environmental Services Division, which addresses the city's water and sewer issues.

"We strive to respond to all water-line breaks within a half hour because that is part of keeping up with our small-town lifestyle."

Brennan, 53, has lived in Henderson since 1958 and has worked for the city since 1979. He says his efforts to keep residents satisfied keep alive what many people envision small-town America is all about. His boss agrees.

"When you get down to it, Henderson has all of the amenities of a large city without the hassles of a large city," said Wayne Robinson, manager of business services for the city's department of utilities services.

And while he enjoys the small-town atmosphere, Robinson, a Henderson resident for 33 years, said the city's resources -- such as malls, major casinos and several waterparks, where he takes the grandkids -- also can't be beat.

"It's great that we don't have to go to Las Vegas," he said. "We have a lot of choices here."

City for sale

Henderson was a city that was given life by the federal government and saved from becoming a ghost town by the state, which ushered in an area of prosperity by assigning a private entity to run its chemical plant and later selling it to that company as the town prepared for incorporation.

In the early 1940s, the federal government selected Henderson -- then Midway City -- as the site for manufacturing the lightweight "miracle metal" magnesium for war planes and munitions. The government owned everything from the plant to the homes it built for its 14,000 workers.

But by 1947 magnesium was no longer in demand. Most of the plant's employees moved away. Enrollment in Henderson schools dipped by two-thirds. Half of the homes in town were vacant.

The U.S. War Asset Administration Office of Real Property Disposal put the city up for sale. A brochure from the federal government listed some of the town's assets:

In a desperate effort to save the city, Henderson and Las Vegas chamber of commerce officials invited state legislators to visit the area, tour the city and take steps to buy it.

Days after the visit, legislators unanimously approved a bill giving the Colorado River Commission of Nevada the authority to buy the old magnesium plant for $6 million. The federal government had wanted $24 million, but the deal was worked out and it saved the city.

The old government-built homes were sold and turned into private homes.

The state, not wanting to be burdened with managing the plant, assigned a private company, Basic Management Inc., to run the facility and generate tax revenues.

In 1952, the company bought the plant from the state and took over the mortgage payments for the next 13 years and retired the debt.

The vibrant future

Perhaps President John F. Kennedy, during his visit to Southern Nevada 40 years ago, summed it up best when he described Henderson as a "city of destiny," oldtimers said.

But to fulfill that destiny, Speight said, Henderson needs to turn its attention to its downtown area, to give it a "new vibrancy," with perhaps residences on top of businesses, similar to what exists in successful eastern U.S. urban communities.

And he foresees that residential development on several thousand acres of recently annexed land in the city's southwest section will stretch past McCarran International Airport.

Gibson said today's growth is so well planned that its neighborhoods should stand the test of time.

"Our legacy, I believe, will be preservable and sustainable neighborhoods," Gibson said. "I believe the homes now may be 50 years old then, but they will be quality homes and areas like Anthem still will be beautiful."

Gibson also believes the Nevada State College at Henderson, like the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that also had humble beginnings in the 1950s, will one day flourish.

"I think one day it may be one of several state colleges in Nevada," Gibson said. "And I believe the state college in Henderson will be a celebrated place to attend."

And, as the 50th anniversary logo says, Henderson is "living the American dream," Gibson said.

"We have retirees coming here with just the intent of kicking back, yet many of them have opened small businesses and began a second cycle of the American Dream," Gibson said. "With some imagination and a little luck, the sky is the limit. It's all here in Henderson.""

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