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Religion comes at a cost in west Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — In a city better known for encouraging sin rather than salvation, dozens of churches are making it tough for new bars or nightclubs to set up shop.

Some say a new ordinance that bans the sale of alcohol near churches is hampering efforts to breathe new economic life into west Las Vegas — a pocket of poverty untouched by casino glitz. The area is home to 176 churches, some set up in small storefronts.

"It's an area of town that is in desperate need of some redevelopment," City Councilman Lawrence Weekly, who represents west Las Vegas, said Thursday.

The ordinance, passed by the City Council with little fanfare in December, restricts alcohol sales within 400 feet of a church. Taverns are restricted within 1,500 of a church.

Existing bars and stores were grandfathered in, but they cannot expand or keep their liquor licenses if they are sold.

Weekly believes many developers simply haven't proposed new bars or stores in the area because of the ordinance. He also has had complaints from convenience stores that have lost their liquor licenses and now can't reapply.

"I don't think it's the churches causing the problems," said Sarann Knight Preddy, president of the Jackson Street Redevelopment Co. "They had nothing to do with the ordinance."

In the 1940s and 1950s, west Las Vegas was known for its clubs — places such as the Harlem Club, Brown Derby and Ebony Club. Many black performers, including Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr., headlined on the Strip, but were forced to stay at west Las Vegas boarding houses.

West Las Vegas is regarded as the start of segregation in the city and remains predominantly black today. Now, it is often overlooked and has decayed, becoming infested with gangs and drugs. Few developers have been interested in the area.

Preddy's nonprofit group and others are working to revitalize the neighborhood, but the ordinance is thwarting people who have purchased land in the area and want to open clubs and other alcohol-selling businesses.

"They won't be able to carry their dreams out," she said.

Preddy suggests the churches, her group and government officials work out some kind of agreement.

For the churches, keeping out bars doesn't seem that bad.

"You only hear it in Las Vegas," the Rev. Harold Dorsey, pastor of the Neway Church of God in Christ, said Thursday. His church, across from a grocery store that sells alcohol, has been in the neighborhood for 17 years.

He believes there are enough clubs and bars in the city and doesn't see why limiting bars would limit redevelopment.

"It's crazy," said the Rev. S.C. Hooks, pastor of the Great Commission Interdenominational Church and a member of the West Las Vegas Neighborhood Council. "We've got a lot of casinos, but we still got to raise our children here.

"That's just the law, and they'll just have to abide by it."

Weekly is sympathetic and understands that quality of life is important, but isn't sure what the answer is.

"There is always room for discussion. If it calls for changing something to make it work, that's open for discussion," he said.