Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2014

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Downtown’s time is now

If Michael Cornthwaite put the philosophy behind his new bar in downtown Las Vegas into a slogan, it might be: It's the locals, stupid.

Sitting on a bar stool in his new Downtown Cocktail Room, which you enter through a gold-painted metal door that looks nothing like any door on Las Vegas Boulevard, Cornthwaite is dead serious. He might be one of the first businessmen in Las Vegas history to go on record to say that he is here for locals, not tourists.

"I've already had people come up to me, repeatedly, and thank me for opening this place," he says. "I already have regular customers ... this is all about feeling comfortable and it's really just for locals."

He emphasizes "real" in talking about his place, Fremont Street, downtown Las Vegas.

"I think as they built all those megamillion-dollar nightclubs, they kind of forgot what was real. I don't care about celebrities. I've met some really cool ones, and it's great to go to a club and see someone if you're from Omaha, I guess. But down here, I just want to be about local people."

He says that, and you're tempted to duck for fear of a lightning strike. Forget the tourists? In Las Vegas?

Here's the not-so-funny thing: That philosophy is the driving force behind what can now be called - with a straight face - the momentum of downtown development. Not only is "It's the locals, stupid" Cornthwaite's mantra, it's the philosophy of the city's business office, which has seen the kind of growth in just the last year that would make any other city slaver.

The idea now is to let the Strip keep its mega-casinos for tourists. Old downtown Las Vegas will be for Las Vegas.

"Locals don't go to the Strip because it's pretty intense," said Scott Adams, the city's business development director. "We think if we create a magnet for locals, create something for Las Vegas, a place where people will work and live, the rest of it will fall into place.

"It's late to come, but it's happening," he says.

That wasn't the idea five years ago, when Mayor Oscar Goodman, flanked by showgirls in Ray-Bans and bodysuits, cut the ribbon on the $100 million Neonopolis. The brainchild of former Mayor Jan Jones, Neonopolis opened with huge fanfare, great hopes and the first-run screening of "Spider-Man," a massive fantasy story for yet another Nevada place to cater to fantasy.

It was downtown's Great Hyped Hope, expecting to draw more tourists to casinos already struggling despite the construction of yet another iffy project, the first Fremont Street Experience canopy.

Hope came and went, just like Neonopolis retailers. The exotic-pet store, sunglasses store, chewy pretzels stand and other places disappeared. The footfalls of security guards now echo in a hulking cinder block structure of a city-owned parking garage. The number of businesses still open could be counted on one hand.

Today, people point to the boondoggle as evidence that downtown is not ready for prime time.

Adams says they are wrong, and that Neonopolis didn't work for two reasons: Timing and execution. A new owner, FAEC Holdings Wirrulla, is working on new plans for the center.

If those owners are smart, they will take cues from Cornthwaite, Adams and the crowd of well-heeled Las Vegans at the champagne-and-stuffed-mushroom gala held a week ago before the groundbreaking for the nearby Lou Ruvo Brain Institute.

Together, they are evidence that weary, scary downtown Las Vegas is being transformed into a place unlike any other in the history of Southern Nevada. It is becoming a true urban center for people who work and live in this community. It will be planned, yet organic in a Downtown Cocktail Room way, with the arts and medicine and a performing arts center.

A real city.

Early one morning last week, seven of Las Vegas' most successful off-Strip developers met to talk about the scope and grandeur of their downtown projects. Richard Worthington, president of the Molasky Group of Cos., was surrounded afterward by men in suits and ties offering thanks for his talk about "green" construction. His unscripted performance had dazzled them in a way that made even the stoniest business operator rethink a lifelong quest for profit above all.

But it was the start of Worthington's talk that spoke to why these developers were sitting in the Celebrity, a small nightclub one block from Fremont Street on Stewart Avenue. It wasn't anything new. Most of the audience believed it when the city's mayor started talking about his vision seven years ago. But belief is one thing; reality is another.

"It's amazing to think of downtown and just how far we've come in just the last five years," Worthington said. "Some of you should be thinking in your mind's eye of what downtown looked like just a few years ago."

It's not just talk, and it's not just happening in the relatively small projects on Fremont Street. From the city's business development office, Adams said that in the last two years, $1.5 billion has been funneled into downtown construction.

"That's real, that's hitting the tax rolls," he said. "We've turned the corner. And in the pipelines is another $10 billion in the next few years."

Even the number crunchers see it.

As principal analyst for Applied Analysis, Jeremy Aguerro compiles data on land transactions, office-space vacancies and everything else related to community development. He's the go-to guy to cipher out trends for people like developers, academics and journalists. And this is what Aguerro says about what's happening.

This time, it's for real.

"There is a greater impetus right now, a certain level of momentum," Aguerro says. "I think some of the people who have gotten behind certain projects have brought a level of credibility to the area that didn't exist five or 10 years ago."

But if you live in Queensridge or Green Valley, or suffer the Rainbow Curve commuting from Summerlin, you probably still don't believe it. To you, downtown remains as sorry as always.

So maybe it's time to take a stroll - and sure, you can make it during the day.

To the west of the Fremont Street Experience is the 61 acres of "brownfield" - developer-speak for underused and sometimes contaminated land. These 61 acres were once home to a Union Pacific rail yard - and they are legend to anyone who has kept track, simply due to the number of projects suggested for it over the last five years, and the number of times this "jewel of the desert" has been referenced and hawked and pushed and propped up by Goodman.

In 2005 the city hired Newland Communities to oversee development of the parcel, which then became "Union Park." Within the last year the World Jewelry Center announced plans to build a 54-story headquarters and retail space for jewelry wholesalers.

A week ago famed architect Frank Gehry dug into the ground as construction began on the $70 million Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, which will anchor one corner of the site when it opens in 2009.

The centerpiece of Union Park will be the $250 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Half-funded with a tax on car rentals, the center is scheduled to open in 2011 on five acres.

Another four acres or so next to the center will be turned into a promenade.

A bird's-eye schematic of Union Park shows how Newland wants to divvy up and sell the rest of the property. One section is for medical, another for office-plus-residential. Some 3,200 residential units of various constructions will be included. Individual structures include a casino-hotel and a boutique hotel.

Rita Brandin, Newland vice president and development director, said that when Newland announces next month who "wins" the right to build a hotel-casino on the property, maybe, just maybe, nonbelievers about downtown will turn the corner. The company expects as many as 12 proposals from developers.

"Listen, we've been trying to manage what I'll call the 'Oh yeah, right, here we go again' discussion about Union Park," she says. "But we know what really gets the attention is when dirt starts turning, that's when people will believe it."

After walking the Union Park acreage, if the sun is still up and you want to see other reasons people are talking up "the momentum" in downtown Vegas, stroll through the street-level parking lot of the Plaza Hotel and Casino and under the electrified canopy of the Fremont Street Experience.

This is Fremont Street, non-Experience. And sure, even during the day you might find a drug-craving tweaker or two and definitely some homeless people.

But don't let that discourage you. If the sun is setting, don't worry. Even at night, you'll now find tourists with fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts, drinking with straws from three-foot-long booze holders, walking unafraid down this once-verboten area.

Walk on, past myriad little stores, with ancient hand-painted signs, that you will never visit. Pass the empty storefronts. Ignore the torn-up street - or praise it, because that's really the sign of development: Within months a new road and widened sidewalks will be in its place.

We've already visited the Downtown Cocktail Room, so go around the corner and step through the curtained front door of another new tavern, the Griffin. Co-owned by Aaron Chepenik and Jonathan Hensleigh, a screenwriter/movie producer who wrote "Jumanji," "The Punisher" and "Diehard with a Vengeance," stepping into the Griffin is almost like stepping onto the set of a movie - a movie as far, far away from Las Vegas as the moon. To step on these grounds, whose vaulted ceilings give it a hallowed feel, is to understand just how far downtown has come and where it's going.

With wall-sconce lighting and two fire pits surrounded by couches, it's a castle basement or, as many say, a cave. And like the Downtown Cocktail Room, it has no slots. Right away, it's comfortable.

"I guess it seems like a new concept," says bar manager Johnny Hempstead. "But really? It's just a bar."

One by one, nonbelievers walk through the Griffin's door, easing themselves onto a stool or into a sofa. With each sip, they start to believe.

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