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Nuestra Historia: Mayor Junio Lopez and his ‘All American City’

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In 1958, 33-year-old Republican Junio Lopez was elected mayor of West Las Vegas, following 20 years of Democratic control in Old Town, in an era when municipal elections were vigorously partisan.

Since it became a municipality in 1903, the Town of Las Vegas was governed by a mayor and four trustees, and elected along with Lopez were all Republican trustees, including Ernest (Ernie) Olivas, Johnny Korte and Cleofes (Coke) Romero, Jr. Led by Lopez, the group would undertake the most ambitious transformation of Old Town since it was founded in 1835.

Trustee Olivas owned Olivas Food Market and Liquor Store on New Mexico Avenue (now the west parking area of North Public Elementary School), and would succeed Lopez as mayor.

He was the son of Jose and Pablita Olivas, who many years earlier had started the business as a small neighborhood grocery store. Ernest Olivas and his brother Luis, who would later serve on the consolidation commission, expanded the store into a large food market, liquor store and laundry, and it was a bustling business and gathering place for many years. (Ernest Olivas was 56 when he died in 1986.)

Trustee Johnny Korte owned Korte’s Furniture and Bicycle store on Bridge Street, still run by his son Bobby Korte and wife Barbara (Mares). Korte was a longtime member of the Board of Trustees of the Las Vegas Land Grant and started his business in 1942 on South Pacific Street, later establishing the store on Bridge Street in about 1955. He was 63 when he died in 1986.

Cleofes Romero Jr., known to all as Coke (koe-kee), owned the Romero Block on the east plaza, where he and his family operated Plaza Sundries for several decades.

Now Plaza Drugs, the business was known as Coke’s, and boasted a popular soda fountain behind a beautiful jade-green-and-black tiled counter still in use there. The remainder of the lower floor was rented to brothers Phillip and Gene Guerin (Guerin’s Grocery), and a smaller part to Epifanio (Epi) Escudero, a noted jeweler who maintained his shop at that location for many years, later moving his jewelry store to Douglas Avenue, next to the Serf Theater.

The Romero Block was built in 1919 by Coke’s father, Cleofes Romero Sr., and brother Secundino Romero, sons of Don Eugenio Romero, second oldest of the Romero brothers, all three of whom were mayors of Old Town. Coke’s great-grandfather was Don Miguel Romero, whom most historians consider the founder of Las Vegas. Born in 1904, Coke Romero was 69 when he died in 1973, and is the last descendant of this noted family to hold public office in Las Vegas, through the present. (Coke Romero’s brother, Joe Romero, was the longtime postmaster in West Las Vegas.)

As for Mayor Junio Lopez, in a previous column in our series about Las Vegas newspapers, we recounted his business and political career, which included owning most of the buildings on the Old Town plaza, winning the Republican nomination for Congress in 1962, his election as state senator in 1966, his run for governor in 1970, and the momentous change engendered by his weekly newspaper, the Alpha News. (See “Junio Lopez and the Alpha News,” Nuestra Historia, April 26, 2013.)

Soon after his election in 1958, Mayor Lopez began in earnest to promote the most expansive capital improvement project in Old Town since the first acequias were laid out and the first Our Lady of Sorrows church was erected when Las Vegas was founded in 1835.

The energetic Lopez called meetings almost weekly, gathering his Trustees at their modest meeting room on the second floor of Town Hall, located since 1939 at the Hedgcock building at 157 Bridge St., now Tito’s Gallery.

Crammed into the two-story Town Hall were a meeting room and several offices on the second floor, and the offices of the Town clerk and judge, together with the police department and jail (three steel-mesh holding cells) on the first level. Before 1939, Town Hall was located at the Mills building at 110 Bridge St. (long owned by the Tafoya family), originally occupied by the Mills Abstract and Title Company, owned by Byron T. Mills, an attorney who for a time also owned the Plaza Hotel.

It was at Town Hall, as shown in the photograph which appears with today’s column, that Mayor Junio Lopez unveiled his plans to bring Old Town into the 20th century — imploring his Trustees and all who would listen, that it was time the west side had basic infrastructure, including paved streets and drainage, lighting, and a sewer system and utilities throughout.

So audacious and ambitious were the young mayor’s plans that even his partisan trustees were at first skeptical and less than enthusiastic.

But Junio Lopez was passionately undeterred, and within months he set in motion the transformation of West Las Vegas into an “All American City.”

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.