Monday, Sept. 17, 2007 | 7:12 a.m.
When the millionaire owner of one of the most successful off-Strip casinos tells the owner of a downtown nightclub that he has guts to open up on Fremont Street, you've got to consider the guys' ages . Although the casino owner might have been only in his 40s, the "kids" investing millions in the once-dirty little secret of downtown Las Vegas are still 30-somethings.
And what they're doing, at least in their eyes, has the potential to transform East Fremont Street into maybe even something more than it was 60 years ago, when tourists considered the street the equivalent of today's Las Vegas Strip.
"It's definitely going to happen here," says Stephen Siegel, the 36-year-old chief executive and president of The Siegel Group.
Siegel made that remark while walking around the urine-scented exterior of one of his most recent purchases, The Travel Inn, on Las Vegas Boulevard near East Fremont Street. Siegel purchased the motel with 29-year-old John Tippins of Tippins Holding, a commercial real estate company with property in Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.
Siegel, recently featured in Inc. magazine for having one of the fastest growing companies in the country, specializes in taking older, run-down buildings and making them new -looking and livable. He says he doesn't do it just to make money, but because he wants to leave his mark and leave areas better than when he found them.
To that end, he has sold most of his properties in Texas with plans to pour his money into Las Vegas. And not just the $5 million he put down to buy The Travel Inn. His Siegel Suites Extended Stay properties already control 2,000 rooms in Reno and Las Vegas.
There are other projects on the horizon, including one on Fremont Street that he won't yet discuss.
"This is going to be amazing when we're done with it," he says of the Inn, an unsightly old black-and-white structure that he plans to remake into a "boutique hotel." The target clientele will be people who cut their teeth on the hipster Hard Rocks and The Palms-type casinos of Vegas, but are still too young to want to stay at the Bellagio.
His vision is shared by 37-year-old Gregg Covin. When he talked to the Sun, Covin was a few days from closing a $15 million deal to buy the Gold Spike hotel and casino.
Covin utters "South Beach" in the same sentence as "Fremont Street," because he sees a definite linkage between the two. He sees the same potential for Las Vegas' once-forgotten street to become its Ocean Drive, the street in Miami Beach that was turned into the place to be by renovators and entrepreneurs in the 1980s.
Even if South Beach's oceanfront setting gives it an ambience Fremont can never hope to match, Covin believes the Las Vegas street eventually could have the same cachet.
"In South Beach, I bought a lot of abandoned buildings, renovated them and rebranded them as sophisticated boutique hotels," said Covin, whose company, Gregg Covin Real Estate Inc., is headquartered in Miami. "The Gold Spike feels perfect for that."
One of Fremont Street's major attributes, Covin said, is that it is "a walkable urban area.
"Once there's some more clubs and restaurants, some good shopping, it is going to take off," he said.
Today, however, walks along Fremont Street's eastern blocks often are intimidating excursions, even in daylight hours.
Guys without shirts gaze into nothingness from the patios of various rundown motels. Screaming matches erupt between couples flustered by having to walk in the heat. There are countless requests for spare change.
Then there are the buildings.
It's difficult to walk past the Roulette, the Desert Moon, Purple Sage, Blue Angel and countless other motels on Fremont Street and think wistfully of days gone by. In its lobby, the Ferguson motel has a photo, circa 1950s, of dozens of family members rollicking and laughing in its swimming pool.
But then you look at that same pool today: enclosed, empty , its walls gouged and blackened, awaiting a replastering that might never come. At least it still is a pool. Most of the other old motels have their pools filled in with dirt. But just dirt. No landscaping.
Has he ever walked it? Ever felt the eyes of the tweakers and hookers fall upon him?
"I did and I did say, 'Wait a minute - am I crazy?' " he recalled.
Then he said he stepped into the Downtown Cocktail Room, which opened within the past several months a few steps south of the Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard intersection, and he was reassured.
"It was a Friday happy hour and all these professional people, city workers, lawyers, were there. It was a real upscale New York-type atmosphere, and I was sold."
And Covin believes this really could become a South Beach-type place. The day it changes will be the day when the first couple of celebrities are photographed here. He almost rues the day, because that's when the big-timers also will start to cast their eyes on the street.
"There probably hasn't been a celebrity photographed down here since Frank Sinatra," he said. "But you wait and see : In the next few years, you'll start seeing so-and-so downtown, then everyone will want to get in here."
There already are hints of that happening.
Where you probably couldn't purchase more than a dime bag of pot three years ago near Ninth and Fremont, some pretty big things are expected to happen in the next year.
At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Tamares Group, a private investment company based in Lichtenstein, is slated to ask for a permit for a mixed-use development on the sprawling three-acre site of the now-empty Ambassador East. Sources say the company - which owns the Plaza on the west end of Fremont, along with other Las Vegas properties - plans to build a 500-unit tower with retail on the lower floors and a supermarket.
Tamares Group could not be reached for comment.
Almost right across the street, Justin Martinez and his father are hoping to erect another multi-story condo project.
"I think this area is hitting on a subculture that does not want to be part of the Strip," the 36-year-old developer said. "It's a downtown that wants to have a pub crawl. They want to get away from the glitter and glamour and get down to the basics."
On 11th street, the finishing touches are being put on the last of 30 urban lofts - 2,100-square-foot, three-story townhomes 100 feet off Fremont Street.
Trinity Schlottman, the 29-year-old Las Vegas division manager for Urban Lofts Townhomes, says only six of the homes, which cost about $350,000, are still available. Who bought the others?
"We have six attorneys, two doctors, a dentist, the director of alcohol sales for a major casino, a local bar owner, a teacher," Schlottman said. "They are people who want to live closer to work, a few who live here Monday through Friday."
Urban Lofts is so sold on what's happening that it broke ground three weeks ago to build 70 more of the townhomes at Fremont and Bruce. In the next few years the company is planning another 70-plus homes near Charleston and 25th, and another block of homes at Stewar t and Mojave.
Schlottman looks onto Fremont to the northeast from the third floor of one of the unfinished 11th Street townhomes.
"The same thing that happened in Dallas will happen here," he said, with a slight Texas twang. "We built these in Dallas in areas with real sketchy neighbors. Now? You can't touch the property around those projects. They're surrounded with new development."
Even with its problems, Fremont Street is several levels above the areas that Urban Lofts developed in Dallas.
"This is really the best neighborhood we've built in," he said. "I have so much more faith in this than any part of Dallas we built in. I'm looking forward to what's going to happen here."
And the pub-crawl thing is slowly happening in the newly crowned "Fremont East District," or the Entertainment District.
It stretches four blocks from Las Vegas Boulevard to Eighth Street. Beauty Bar was the first to move in more than two years ago. Then this year, the Griffin, two storefronts down, and the Downtown Cocktail Room, just around the corner from the Griffin, moved in.
Within the confines of the new neon signs that mark this territory, you still see the occasional addict. Homeless people still ask for quarters. But you don't feel unsafe. It's so bright to be almost daylight at midnight when you step out of one of the taverns. Security and police are a presence.
Scott Adams, director of the city's Office of Business Development, said the city is trying to incubate the area to make it feasible for businesses. When the four-block Fremont East District is built out in perhaps three to five years, the rest will happen - without, officials hope, the need for so much city help.
"The whole theory behind redevelopment is that you catalyze an area and hope it has influence beyond that," he said. "At the end of the day, you want the private sector to do most of the heavy lifting."
Beyond the first four blocks of East Fremont, the city is planning to do a comprehensive street renovation, planning to lay medians with palm trees all the way down to Eastern Avenue. At the same time, the Regional Transportation Commission will create street turn-outs and stops for a bus line.
Those are nice improvements. But South Beach?
"Yeah, it could be," Adams said. "Because that, too, was a really old, blighted district. Now, they had great architecture in those old buildings. But I would say that's a great case study for the kind of catalytic impact we hope will happen here."