Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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New district is all about old Las Vegas

A buxom beauty in a neon bikini, a glimmering, red stiletto-heeled shoe and an enormous martini, complete with olive and swizzle stick.

City leaders hope these images will stir memories of old Las Vegas and entice people to spend a night on the town in the city's newest entertainment district.

The four-story "streetscapes" will be a signature draw for Fremont East, the $5.5 million downtown redevelopment project extending from Las Vegas Boulevard to Eighth Street on Fremont Street.

The district will boast trendy new clubs but have a decidedly retro look. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Monday.

"The goal was to create a really memorable place that would stick in the national psyche," said Steve Van Gorp, Las Vegas' redevelopment director. "We really think folks will be down here at Fremont East wanting to have their photos taken, similar to the way they do with the Welcome to Las Vegas sign."

The city looked at Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans' Bourbon Street for inspiration. Those venues, Van Gorp said, forged an instantly recognizable identity representative of each region's history.

"We felt we could do something similar here," he said.

Mike Nolan, general manager of the El Cortez Hotel at 600 Fremont St ., applauds the retro approach.

"Las Vegas isn't as old as some other cities, but everybody likes to see where things started," Nolan said. "There is a lot of history down here."

Nolan hopes the district will help bridge the gap between the Fremont Street Experience and El Cortez. He recognizes that, especially at night, it's difficult to get people to walk through a poorly lighted block past empty and closed shops, many with panhandlers in front of them, to reach his casino.

That "what's up there" factor was an important part of project planning, Van Gorp said.

"We wanted the signs to be big enough that people could stand at The Plaza at Fremont and Main and be drawn down through the Fremont Street Experience to Fremont East," he said.

Each streetscape is between 40 and 45 feet tall and has unique characteristics. The stiletto-heeled shoe, for example, rotates 360 degrees. The streetscapes, which will be located in the median of the street, will cost $1.2 million.

Not surprisingly, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said the large martini glass is his favorite.

"It's my job to change the olives," he joked.

Roughly half of the project will be funded with city redevelopment funds, with the rest of the budget coming via $800,000 in state money and $1.8 million in special assessments on property owners in the area.

City leaders see the district as a critical element of downtown revitalization, one that could make downtown a more attractive residential option, which in turn could draw retail and grocery stores.

With the district getting attention from major club owners throughout the country, city leaders hope to draw between 10 and 20 cocktail and music clubs into the district over the next two years.

Successful entertainment districts can be very lucrative for their cities.

The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that 4.2 million people visit the Beale Street Historic District annually, spending about $285 per day while in the city.

Debra March, executive director of UNLV's Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies, said the area may be ripe for this kind of entertainment district.

"While we have a whole lot going on here, there is an interest in creating entertainment that goes beyond the Strip and gaming," March said. "This could have a tremendous appeal for locals and visitors as well.

"All of the ingredients are here," including a core of young professionals throughout the city that should embrace the trendy clubs, March added.

"A well-marketed, safe environment that promotes walkability could be very successful," she said.

The renovations are expected to take about six months and will include medallions that depict the city's history, elaborate gateway signage and decorative streetlights and lampposts.

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