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July 29, 2014

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Fremont East shows signs of regaining momentum

After a splashy start, development of the entertainment district stalled

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Richard Brian

Fremont East’s $5.5 million streetscape opens with an official lighting ceremony Aug. 24. Since then, progress in the area has waned, but there are signs it is picking up.

With great fanfare eight months ago, Las Vegas hailed the rebirth of East Fremont Street with a street party and the lighting of sparkling new neon.

There was much to celebrate. Only two years earlier, this stretch of urban pavement two blocks from the canopied, tourist-laden Fremont Street Experience was home to some of the most bedraggled characters in the city.

On any night, you could walk these few blocks and be offered your choice of carnal or pharmaceutical pleasures — for a fee, of course.

But through incentives that included vastly discounted liquor licenses and the elimination of bar-to-bar distance ordinances, some businesses started to move in.

The Griffin, co-owned by a Hollywood screenwriter, and the Downtown Cocktail Room, a swank, New York-ish lounge, joined nearby Beauty Bar. It seemed a good beginning.

And then — nothing.

It’s been almost a year and a half since the last new business opened. Talk to people who spend time in the area and you’ll hear stories of solicitations, drug offers, threats and panhandling beginning to return.

There’s a general sense that, even as numerous developments are set to lay foundations in Union Park, the 61-acre jewel of Mayor Oscar Goodman’s eye two miles to the west, East Fremont is being left in the lurch.

At one time, the two areas seemed to be moving in unison. While Union Park took care of the high-end-but-still-not-Strip type of development, Fremont East took on smaller projects, the kind that could form an entertainment hub for locals.

A push was to come from the grand opening of the street, repaved with new, wide sidewalks and set off with massive neon signs, one of them a martini glass, an homage to the mayor.

When Goodman took the stage that August night to light the new neon, he fell down. He got up, dusted himself off and flipped the switch to cheers.

In a nutshell, that’s what has happened to East Fremont, those who do business there say. The street took off, hit some snags — but there are signs it’s on its way back.

Mike Nolan, general manager and chief operating officer of El Cortez at 600 East Fremont, admitted things have slowed. He does not blame the city, however. It’s the economy, sure. But it’s also property owners, many of whom seem to be waiting.

“If we just get the owners on board and do something,” Nolan said. “I think half the people are in a waiting game, a wait-and-see attitude.”

He points the finger at El Cortez, as well. The casino is amid renovations at Ogden House, at Sixth and Ogden streets, a block off Fremont Street, to create a 64-unit boutique hotel, at the cost of $100,000 per room. But it wants to do more.

That includes getting someone to lease the massive old medical clinic at the northwest corner of Fremont and Sixth streets, which El Cortez also owns.

Between The Griffin and the Downtown Cocktail Room, local developer Jim Reding has been making steady progress with two new businesses at Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard.

In November, Reding plans to open The Hive, a two-story nightclub and alternative-music concert hall, catty-cornered from Neonopolis. The new club will be next to the Downtown Burger Bar, a family friendly restaurant with sidewalk seating on Fremont.

Reding concedes it’s been a tough slog.

“It’s been difficult, no question,” especially regarding the businesses’ financing, Reding said. But he noted that as money from several local investors dried up in recent months, he found out-of-state investors to make up the difference.

The city, Reding was quick to note, has been extremely helpful in speeding along the processes necessary to open such businesses, including planning, zoning, water and sewage.

“It’s almost as if the city has been playing the role of a very concerned landlord,” he said.

There are positive signs in adjacent blocks as well. The new owners of the Gold Spike on East Ogden are in the midst of a $3.5 million, floor-to-ceiling renovation of the hotel’s 112 rooms and casino floor, according to Michael Crandall, director of business operations for The Siegel Group.

The Siegel Group and other investors also recently purchased an adjacent motel called the Travel Inn. After renovations, it will become part of the Gold Spike, connected by a landscaped path.

One of the most remarkable signs that movement is afoot is the very quiet rebirth of the long-languishing Neonopolis shopping and entertainment center, renamed Fremont Square a year ago.

A deli, Taste of California, opened last week in a storefront once occupied by a coffee shop. A sushi place and an Italian restaurant also are to open within a few months in spaces facing the Fremont Street Experience, developer Rohit Joshi said.

“I’m just floored by the new restaurants we are getting in,” Joshi said. “They are more in the model of downtown, of East Fremont. Modestly priced, great food. A good fit.”

Scott Adams, the city’s director of business development, said there’s been a lot more going on in Fremont East than meets the eye for some time — filling a gaping hole in Las Vegas community life.

“There was meant to be an organic downtown district for locals,” Adams said. “There really is no walkable entertainment district anywhere in the Las Vegas Valley — and there needs to be.”

Nolan, who is constantly upgrading the interior of El Cortez, puts it in the parlance that seems to befit Las Vegas’ forward-looking tradition — a tradition that has been long absent from this once-downtrodden part of the city.

“Whether the economy gets better or worse, we can’t stop,” Nolan said. “You gotta keep moving or you’ll fall behind. There’s no such thing as sitting still. That’s what we’re working on.”

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