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April 18, 2014

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Downtown fixture Michael Cornthwaite expounds on the state of Fremont East

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John Katsilometes

Michael Cornthwaite and his wife, Jennifer, the First Couple of Fremont East.

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  • Michael Cornthwaite
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Inside Emergency Arts

The check-in desk at the old Fremont Medical Building on Sixth and Fremont streets. Launch slideshow »
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The check-out desk at the old Fremont Medical Building on Sixth and Fremont Streets.

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The red-light district at Emergency Arts.

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Mail slots at the old Fremont Medical Building, soon to be Emergency Arts.

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More files at Emergency Arts.

To accurately gauge the viability of downtown Las Vegas, specifically the Fremont East entertainment district, watch Michael Cornthwaite. If he can't make it happen down there, everyone should beware.

The owner of Downtown Cocktail Room just off the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, Cornthwaite is pressing forward with plans to lure at least 20 boutiques, art galleries and various creatively fertile shops to the shuttered Fremont Medical Building on Sixth and Fremont streets. Set amid musty exam spaces, check-in and check-out counters, and a vaguely haunting X-ray room will be a collective known as Emergency Arts. This puzzle-piece project might be open as early as March 1 if Cornthwaite can fill the 20 spaces positioned snugly on the three-story building's bottom floor.

He's confident it will happen. As of this afternoon, Cornthwaite has secured 15 tenants, including a café at the entrance — where the medically needy once assembled is now where you might pick up a nice pastry. Cornthwaite and his fiancée, Jennifer Harrington, are partners in Emergency Arts with landowner El Cortez. They are giving themselves a year to "make it work" on Fremont East. If they fall short, well, Seattle's a nice city. So is San Francisco. It would be a shame for the city to lose these two downtown devotees and visionaries, but the clock is ticking. Even Harrington's own gallery, Henri & Odette, which once taking up residency nearby on Sixth and Carson, will move into the Emergency Arts project.

During our 30-minute interview Monday in the KUNV studios at Greenspun Hall on the UNLV campus, Cornthwaite talked at length about Emergency Arts, but also let opinions and thoughts on other Vegas-tied issues flow as freely as his shoulder-length hair:

• On working with El Cortez: "El Cortez is anchor of the entire (Fremont East) district. Their customer demographic is an older demographic, and frankly it is getting too old. It needs a younger demographic, and I think they're doing very well. El Cortez is the coolest hotel down there; the Cabana Suites are beautifully designed. ... It's a nice situation, and they are very supportive. ... When we had the (Las Vegas) Farmers Market (on Fremont Street), they supported that. They put flyers in the envelopes with the employees' paychecks, things like that."

• On the fate of the moribund 7-Eleven building on the corner of LV Boulevard and Fremont Street, a space that has been sitting unoccupied since the convenience store closed in 2006: "Since I started building (DCR), there have been two signed leases on that space, one of which was really never executed. The first, money was never collected and they just vanished, literally. ... But about a year and a half ago a group came in, showed a lot of interest, signed a lease and actually worked on the space. They demo-ed the adjacent space, so now we've got two spaces that are connected to each other for one, giant 5,700-square-foot space with a 36-foot ceiling inside. Unfortunately, they couldn't get their resources together, either. It was supposed to be like a live music venue, they were going to build a mezzanine level, but it was a fairly expensive project for the area, a $1-$2 million project. You know, they were about $300,000-$400,000 along, with no doubt they were going to be able get the money together. That was mid-2008, when everything started to fall apart. The Hive, is what it was called. It had lots of potential, and it could have worked out, but it's just been an unfortunate situation."

• On the fate of Neonopolis, which sits kitty-corner from DCR on the corner of Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard: "Nobody has any doubt of the importance of Neonopolis in connecting Fremont Street Experience with Fremont East. That's the only way it could happen. But I take a little bit of a different approach in that scenario. I never wanted to connect the Fremont Street Experience with Fremont East. I wanted Fremont East to be locals-driven and have a locals-based clientele. I wanted a buffer between us and the Fremont Street Experience."

• On Rohit Joshi, who fronts Wirrulla Hayward, the development company that owns Neonopolis: "The gentleman involved in Neonopolis (Joshi) is a wonderful salesman. He has been to the club one time, and he has an amazing skill. I've had several meetings with him, and he has a very positive approach and he gets you feeling really good, and you walk out and you're feeling really good for about two minutes. Then you realize, something just happened but you don't know what it was, and of course nothing ever happens."

• On the proposed Star Trek Experience, which reportedly was on line to move into Neonopolis in May but has not actually moved in at all: "Nothing's going on. It's not going to happen. I would stake my bar on it."

• On CityCenter: "It's beautiful, it's an amazing architectural marvel. It's what I would love to see, what I miss in a vibrant city, and that's what we're trying to bring downtown, into the core of our city. I've heard them say that it's non-themed, but it's a city-themed casino. It's themed as a city. The really smart consumer won't buy into that. Who can afford to shop there? I'm not going to Tom Ford to buy a $650 shirt.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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