Reinventing Fremont Street - Friday 12th of August 2005

In the early 90s, the Fremont Street casinos were sucking wind. Facing stiff competition from Strip theme resorts and Indian casinos, riverboat gambling halls and neighborhood slot saloons, the aging downtown casinos were flatlining. It was clear to Glitter Gulch gamers that they had to huddle to find a solution.

All of downtowns heavy hitters came together, including the Golden Nuggets Steve Wynn, Boyd Gamings Bill Boyd and the Plazas Jackie Gaughan, and they started brainstorming their answer to the Mirage volcano. At one point, Golden Gate owner Mark Brandenburg recalls, the leading idea was to build a full-size replica of the starship Enterprise -- 23 stories high and 600 feet long, complete with thrill ride, restaurants and convention facilities.

Another idea was the fabled "Las Venice," a network of canals meandering through the streets of downtown. Tourists would take boat rides along Fremont Street. This idea, too, gained some momentum, until somebody mentioned that tourists might end up watching homeless men bathing in the trickling Venetian waters.

Wynn, observing all this gnashing of teeth, decided to take matters into his own hands. He hired Jon Jerde, the designer of Horton Plaza in San Diego, to dream up a better idea to save Fremont Street. Jerde came up with closing the street to automobile traffic, building a metal canopy over five blocks of Fremont and offering a dazzling light show on the overhead apparatus.

The casino owners and the city of Las Vegas quickly ponied up $70 million to erect the canopy, buy thousands of light bulbs and build a giant parking garage to house the thousands of people who would flock to see this amazing spectacle every night.

They called it the Fremont Street Experience.

That was in 1995. And heres the truth: The Fremont Street Experience did what it was supposed to do. It gave tourists a new reason to go downtown. Besides the canopy light show, Fremont Street was freshened up. With no cars rolling down the thoroughfare, it became a comfortable pedestrian mall. Street vendors set up shop on the street, selling all the stupid junk favored by tourists.

More importantly, bicycle-riding police officers and security guards became a pervasive presence in Glitter Gulch, keeping the unwashed out of sight of tourists, some of whom could use a shower and shave themselves but at least have someplace to sleep at night (even if it is the Lady Luck). This policy angered homeless advocates, who argued that street people had just as much right to vomit on Fremont Street as they did on Ogden Avenue or Stewart Avenue or Bonanza Road.

In addition, Fremont Street started staging some events, such as concerts by washed-up 70s and 80s rock acts. These, of course, draw big crowds, because, lets face it, people still love the Guess Who, REO Speedwagon and Huey Lewis.

So, the Fremont Street Experience has kept the bankruptcy lawyers at bay. Most of the downtown casinos are solvent. The Golden Nugget continues to shine. The Boyd properties pack in the Hawaiians. Weekends find crowded casino floors at the Four Queens, Fitzgeralds, Binions and Plaza. And inevitably, when the canopy light show comes on every hour or so, a few hundred tourists crane their necks to watch giant cartoons zip across the sky. The fact that most locals dont spend any time on Fremont Street these days doesnt mean the place is empty.

Heres the thing, though: I think Fremont Streets long-term future depends on bringing back locals. You cant compete with the Strip, and there simply arent enough Hawaiians and Midwestern fun-jetters to go around. But the current setup isnt going to entice enough locals to drive past the Suncoast or Sunset Station to spend their time and money on Fremont Street.

The crux of the problem is design. The old-time casinos dont do a good job of opening themselves up to the street. Theyve improved some in recent years, but for the most part they still lead with walls and slot machines. The worst offenders: Four Queens, Fremont, Golden Nugget, Golden Gate and Las Vegas Club. Sidewalk dining is uncommon. The Starbucks at the Golden Nugget has some outdoor seating, as does the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts at Fitzgeralds, but thats not saying much.

If you stroll through the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego or along the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver, the restaurants literally spill out into the street. A Saturday night in the Gaslamp District is a bustling mix of mostly well-dressed visitors and locals, all crowding into bars, restaurants and nightclubs, enjoying the sidewalk action as much as whats happening inside particular establishments.

Denvers 16-block-long downtown mall is a shopping and dining mecca, with a Hard Rock Café at one end, a Virgin Records Megastore in the middle and the revered Tattered Cover bookstore at the other end. An eclectic mix of restaurants offers outdoor seating. Free shuttle buses run up and down the length of 16th Street in dedicated pathways, providing convenient access to everything the mall has to offer.

Fremont Street doesnt invite that indoor-outdoor aesthetic. Either youre walking aimlessly down the pedestrian esplanade, with only a Harley-Davidson clothing outlet to catch your eye, or youre wading through a video poker maze to locate a bar or restaurant in the bowels of the casino.

Neonopolis is an oft-cited Fremont Street failure. But the main reason is rarely cited: The three-story entertainment complex was built all wrong. It literally turns its back on Glitter Gulch. Shops inside Neonopolis dont do well because nobody knows they are there. Tourists dont naturally wander into Neonopolis. They see an imposing structure at the east end of Fremont, dont understand its relationship to the street and keep walking. After perusing Walgreens tchotchke wonderland, they end up crossing Las Vegas Boulevard to see what all the excitement is about in the next block.

This, however, turns out to be a bad decision, as they soon are asked to buy drugs or transvestite sex, or they witness the spectacle of a mentally unstable man pissing on a lamppost as yellow-shirted officers descend on him to administer his weekly beating. Meanwhile, Neonopolis subsists on a relative handful of local kids attending indie rock shows and bored tourists attending blockbuster movies with three other people in the theater.

Fremont Street can do better.

The Third Street corridor, two blocks off Fremont, is setting the right example. Three new businesses -- the Hogs and Heifers restaurant-bar, Triple George Grill and Celebrity gay nightclub -- reflect the mindset that has revived downtowns in other cities. Triple George has quickly become a hotspot, its refined San Francisco-inspired décor and menu a sharp contrast to much of downtowns meat-and-potatoes vibe. Too bad these Third Street newcomers arent on Fremont Street proper.

The same can be said of the citys much-touted "entertainment district." This is a project to renovate the scary part of Fremont east of Las Vegas Boulevard, transforming it into a nightlife mecca like Beale Street in Memphis or the French Quarter in New Orleans. But the "entertainment district" really should be west of the Boulevard, where all the hotel-casinos are.

The Strip resorts learned in the 90s that gambling is just one piece of the puzzle. To bring the monied masses, you have to offer good restaurants, name-brand retail outlets (not those that sell three novelty T-shirts for $10), quality shows, pools and spas, and a few other attractions that you cant find in Cedar Rapids or Omaha.

This equation works for locals, too. The newest development craze, mixed-use projects or "lifestyle centers," is going to take the valley by storm. The District at Green Valley Ranch, though flawed, is the model that will be improved upon by an array of projects on the drawing boards.

Just as the Strip reinvents itself every few years, so should Fremont Street. The lighted canopy did its job in the 90s but it has outlived its usefulness. Lets tear it down (thus freeing Vegas Vic from prison), rebuild the casinos and Neonopolis so they embrace the pedestrian mall and transform Fremont Street into a hip, cool, attractive destination for visitors and locals alike to eat, drink, dance, shop and, of course, gamble. Celebrities flock to places like the Ghostbar at the Palms for a reason -- its the place to see and be seen. The same kind of buzz can be generated downtown, but only if Fremont Street decision-makers are willing to take the kind of risks that have become routine on the Strip.

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