Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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Fremont Street unveils a new, sharper image

After the second announcement that the next light show at the Fremont Street Experience was being canceled because of "technical difficulties," Becky Adams was worried she and her friends wouldn't see the dazzling display on this trip.

Sunday night was the last chance to work out the bugs on the upgraded $17 million light canopy, which will be formally unveiled today.

But then, about 15 minutes after the announcement, the pedestrian corridor went dark, and then the canopy came alive with color and the Fremont Street Experience filled with music.

It was a rock-and-roll tribute program, less than 10 minutes long, and featuring songs by the Beatles, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. The program wasn't new, but the light system is, and tourists and those who work on Fremont Street agreed that if nothing else, the new system gives a much clearer picture.

City and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority officials hope the investment will breathe new life into the downtown attraction.

Visitors to the Fremont Street Experience on Sunday night were impressed. Many said the light show is what brought them downtown, adding the improved light display should draw even more tourists.

"It's great," Adams, a 42-year-old bookkeeper from Live Oak, Fla., said. "I don't think half these people would be downtown if it wasn't for this."

And Adams said she thinks the new system will attract even more tourists.

"I think the better it is, the more people will come," she said.

But some Fremont Street vendors were wary of ambitious predictions.

Shae Silver, who works selling drinks from a cart called Higher Ground, doesn't think the new technology will translate to larger crowds.

"People come here to gamble, not for the gadgetry," Silver said.

Robert Bond, who works a kiosk called Animal World that sells T-shirts and other items with animals on them, said tourists have always come to see the light show, and he's not sure the upgraded system will bring additional tourists.

But Bond said the quality of the light canopy is better.

"The LED lights are a bit more clearer," he said.

"They have some glitches to get out," Bond said, adding that a few lights on one end of the canopy stay on after a show. In another spot, a band of colors flashes as if it's part of a broken color television.

"But they'll get it all worked out," he said. "Finally they have all the sections going at once."

But whether it's the old or newly installed light system, the colorful display is a big attraction for some.

"People have been coming down here to see the shows forever," Bond said. "A lot of people."

Tracie DesAutel, 28, of Spokane, Wash., said the light show is "the only reason she and her husband brought their three children downtown."

"The kids are out here dancing and having a great time," Shawn DesAutel said. "And I'm an engineer so I appreciate this kind of thing."

Tonight's official launch of the new system coincides with the premiere of the reality television show "The Casino," which had some promotional video footage on the canopy for a few minutes. The new viewing surface on the underside of the canopy, called Viva Vision, is expected to be a boon for the downtown area, which "has seen its share of challenges," a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said Friday.

Construction on the project, which updates the $70 million canopy unveiled in 1996, faced some controversy.

Part of the bill for the canopy was paid for by the convention authority in the form of a grant to the city. In January 2003 the Las Vegas City Council voted unanimously to accept a $7 million grant in installments from the authority. This grant was to help the Fremont Street Experience, a group of 10 downtown casinos that operates the public-private pedestrian mall, pay for the project.

"When you look at all that's going on in downtown Las Vegas, this is getting a lot of exposure," said LVCVA spokeswoman Marina Nicola. "It's an area that has faced its challenges but now it's facing all these fresh things."

The convention authority, which collects money from the city's hotel taxes, has funded other large-scale local projects in the past. In 1994 the LVCVA board allotted $8 million to transform the section of Fremont Street splitting the downtown casino district into the $70 million Fremont Street Experience.

The upgrades to be debuted today include changing the canopy's 2 million lightbulbs to LED lamps, giving it the appearance of a flat-panel television monitor, she said.

"It's an 837 percent improvement," said Mayor Oscar Goodman. "It's the difference between an old TV and a plasma."

The new technology also offers some cost-saving benefits.

"We're expecting our utility bills to be reduced by 60 or 70 percent," said Joe Schillaci, the president of the Fremont Street Experience, who was hired to replace Mark Paris late last year. Paris negotiated the deal with the convention authority.

Fremont Street officials only recently set a solid date for the launch, limiting their estimates to sometime in June, Nicola said.

"It's basically on target," said Schillaci, referring to the project's timeline. "There was some hope that the project would have been done earlier but basically we're where we should be."

The casinos that jointly operate the promenade along Fremont Street contributed about $7.8 million to the project, Schillaci said. The Fremont Street Experience operates on a budget of about $9 million a year, he said.

The remaining portion of the costs of the overhaul were covered by the parent company of the electronics organization that built the canopy. For $3 million the Fremont Street Experience offered LG, the Korean parent company, branding rights for the center.

At a total of $17 million, relatively small change for a Las Vegas casino project, the construction came within original budget estimates, Nicola said.

"It's about on par with what they (the Fremont Street Experience) estimated it to cost," she said. "It's going to be a huge draw for the money."

The costs, if relatively small, were not small enough to encourage casino owners to pay for the entire project with their own revenue.

"Because it's a lot of money," Dan Shumny, vice president of marketing at the Golden Nugget said. "Because it's a tourist attraction for the entire city," he added, explaining why tax revenues should contribute to the project.

"When the arrangement was made, it was before I got there," Schillaci said. "It wasn't that they couldn't pay for it."

The convention authority contribution was arranged when then-Horseshoe owner Becky Binion Behnen was more than $2 million behind in paying the property's Fremont Street Experience dues, and before new owners at the Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, Plaza and Las Vegas Club took over operation of their clubs.

Casino owners and city officials are hoping that the new light show will attract more tourist dollars to the other strip.

"It's going to give everyone a complete new reason to come to downtown," Goodman said.

Sun reporter Stephen Curran contributed to this story.

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