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October 1, 2014

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County shops for sin sites

No one is saying why it wants to buy buildings housing adult social clubs

Image

Richard Brian

Jeff Lutz, left, and Frankie Todisco manage the Green Door, an “adult social club” whose premises Clark County wants to purchase.

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Metro Police officers question a man at the seedy Commercial Center on Sahara Avenue, where three buildings Clark County is looking to buy are located.

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Jack Owen, administrative lieutenant for Metro's South Central Area Command, discusses 2007 police activity statistics with property owners of the Commercial Center shopping plaza Wednesday. Owen said that in one year Metro received 1,168 calls to 953 E. Sahara Road, the center's address.

Beyond the Sun

Commercial Center arguably boasts the most diverse clientele of any strip mall in Las Vegas.

It caters to roller hockey jocks and transvestites, Korean grocery shoppers and swingers, churchgoers and pool hall junkies, those in need of a wig or a bong.

For the past few months, the shopping plaza has also attracted another potential client — Clark County.

The county’s redevelopment agency wants to buy several properties in the center on Sahara Avenue near Maryland Parkway, long the subjects of complaints of crime and vandalism to county commissioners. And it’s probably no coincidence that all three buildings the county wants house “adult social clubs.”

There’s Show & Tell, which describes itself as “Sexy ... Sophisticated ... Unforgettable.” A banner over the door features

three shirtless men and two women in their underwear.

There’s the Green Door, 18,000 square feet of self-described “Pure Fantasy!” Its sign advertises a VIP floor, three juice bars, a steam room and a dungeon for those whose swinging involves whips and chains.

And then there’s Hawks Gym. Its owner says the gym specializes in “the same thing as the Green Door, but for gay men.”

The county’s plans for the three properties aren’t entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that the effort is getting mixed reviews from Commercial Center’s 200-plus tenants. Some would love to see the clubs gone, but others feed off the clubs’ clientele. Many aren’t sure what to think, but are anxious about what the future holds.

Commissioners quietly gave the county redevelopment agency permission three months ago to spend up to $7.6 million to appraise the three properties, acquire them, relocate the businesses and knock down the buildings. Commissioners approved the action without comment as part of their consent agenda, a list of about 100 items passed in a single vote.

The county’s redevelopment director, Lesa Coder, wouldn’t discuss the county’s plans for the properties last week. She said discussions are ongoing and referred the Sun to the two-page document that commissioners approved.

That document says “assembling properties from various owners” would help attract developers for reinvestment in the area. Private developers are planning two 25-story condo towers just south of the clubs and a 15-story time-share tower to the southeast. The county’s purchases would allow greater flexibility for those developments and permit other users to occupy the existing buildings until they are demolished, the document says.

Although all three buildings are in the plaza’s eastern wing, they are not side by side. If the county knocks them down, what is now a row of contiguous buildings will be left with gaping holes, like a broken set of teeth.

That’s a big concern for some businesses, such as the Badlands Saloon, a cowboy-themed gay bar whose decor includes wagon wheels, cattle horns and pictures of hunky ranch hands.

On a recent weekday afternoon, bartender Lawrence Guerra tended to a few customers while “I Love Lucy” episodes played on the TV behind the bar. He said the saloon and other businesses in the shopping center depend on crossover traffic from the clubs, and views the Commercial Center with its current makeup as a fully functioning body.

“You get rid of the arms and the whole thing falls apart,” he said.

A few doors down at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, Executive Director Candice Nichols worries that if the clubs go, so will a lot of the foot traffic that makes the community center’s visitors feel safe.

“It’s unsettling,” she said. “I think redevelopment is good in some sense, but you do have businesses here that are thriving.”

On the other side of the plaza, Nick Carpineta mans the counter at the 420 Smoke Shop, which sells tobacco, hookahs and condoms. He said the clubs’ clients frequent his shop.

“They are a big part of the center,” he said.

Others, though, say the clubs’ seedy reputation is not good for their businesses.

At Hyundai Wholesale Market, a Korean grocery store, owner Jim Kim said the clubs make some of his shoppers uncomfortable.

“Probably nine out of 10 tenants would think the same way I do,” he said.

At Serge’s Wigs, general manager John Gigliotti, who describes the store’s customer base as upscale, said he would like to see the clubs replaced by shiny new retail stores that would draw more shoppers.

“There’s nothing to come in here and shop for unless you’re looking for an Asian restaurant or an alternative-life saloon,” he said. “It’s pretty rundown now.”

That’s part of the classic predicament that comes with redevelopment. The hole-in-the-wall feel of many Commercial Center storefronts helps to keep rents low, providing a home for many mom-and-pop shops and setting the plaza apart from the pricey shops on the Strip and the endless sea of chain stores in the suburbs.

Take Kool Kollectables, for example. It’s a comic book store that also sells swords and used furniture — not Strip material and probably a hard sell even on Fremont Street.

At the same time, many residents consider the shopping center a blight, and view its rainbow-colored Dumpsters and vacant storefronts as eyesores.

What might happen to Commercial Center’s niche tenants if the revitalization plan moves ahead? Although some, such as the much-praised Lotus of Siam Thai restaurant, would likely do well, some tenants might not survive the transition.

Everything depends on whether the county is able to purchase the buildings. So far, its attempts have been unsuccessful, if not foolhardy, said Terry Gordon, who owns the Show & Tell building. He also leases the Green Door building from owner Jerry Moreo and subleases it to the club.

He said the county offered $576,000 for the Show & Tell building and $2.7 million for the Green Door building.

The deal fell through in part because the redevelopment agency insisted that all three properties, including the Hawks Gym building, be joined in escrow, he said.

“How are you going to get three people to agree on one thing?” he said. “The offer was so muddled nobody would do it.”

Instead, Gordon plans to sell to his tenant for a higher price than the county offer, he said.

Attorney Allen Lichtenstein, who represents all three clubs and Gordon, said there is another problem: The clubs have lengthy leases that would survive any transfer of ownership.

“To my knowledge, no offer or negotiation has been attempted with these businesses,” he said.

As to why the county might want to buy the three properties, he said: “What each of them has in common is that each houses a successful business that perhaps the county does not like.”

He also questioned the county’s priorities and openness — more accurately, the lack thereof — about its plans, noting that the county “has attempted this through an item buried in a consent agenda instead of with full disclosure and transparency.”

“It is equally puzzling in this time of budgetary cutbacks, when there’s not enough money to pay for teachers, nurses, public defenders and other crucial government services, that the county is contemplating spending millions to go after this rather dubious enterprise,” he said.

County officials point out that the county has targeted Commercial Center and nearby areas for redevelopment for years.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, whose district includes Commercial Center, said the goal is to get “some kind of project off the ground over there.”

“I don’t want the county to become a major property owner,” she said. “It’s more trying to get something stimulated.”

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