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Queen of Hearts demolition marks new era for downtown

City Hall to be built in footprint of drug and prostitution-plagued hotel-casino

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Leila Navidi / Las Vegas Sun

Mayor Oscar Goodman and city officials take part in the demolition ceremony for the former Queen of Hearts Hotel, part of the ongoing construction to build a new City Hall and office complex in downtown Las Vegas Tuesday, February 2, 2010.

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010 | 8:06 p.m.

Demolition of the Queen of Hearts

An excavator tore apart the Queen of Hearts Hotel and Casino Tuesday to make way for a new eight-story city hall. The $146.2 million building will be part of a five-block mixed-use development that Mayor Goodman says will revitalize downtown with 13,000 new jobs and $4 billion in new investments. The Queen of Hearts was built in 1963 and was infamous for its crime-ridden past, including drugs and prostitution.

Queen of Hearts Demolition

YESCO workers remove the Queen of Hearts Hotel sign after the demolition ceremony for the hotel, part of the ongoing construction to build a new City Hall and office complex in downtown Las Vegas Tuesday, February 2, 2010. The sign will be stored at the Neon Boneyard. Launch slideshow »

Queen of Hearts/City Hall site

Dressed in a hard hat and waving a red construction flag, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman signaled to the excavator operator on Tuesday.

With a mighty roar, the claw at the end of the boom reached up into the middle third-story window of the old Queen of Hearts Hotel and Casino at the corner of First Street and Lewis Avenue.

And with a deafening crunch, the claw bit into the blighted structure, bringing down a large section of the wall.

It signaled the end of the colorful hotel, which was built in 1963 and had a reputation for being a haven for criminal activity, including prostitution and drugs.

But it also signaled the beginning of a five-block, mixed-use development effort that will create a new eight-story city hall building, add 13,000 jobs and bring some $4 billion in new investment to the city's downtown, Goodman told some 30 people attending this morning's event.

"I know the city has done the right thing, particularly during these very challenging economic times," Goodman said.

The new $146.2 million city hall that will be built on the site of the old Queen of Hearts Hotel will be a first-class building and bring a sense of pride to local citizens, he said.

"When you walk into that city hall, it will engulf you. It will be like a magnet," he said. "It will be a statement that city hall and government in Las Vegas is concerned about our community and we are there for all of our citizens to be heard. It's very special."

Goodman pointed to construction nearby on the new Smith Center of Performing Arts, and also the nearby Ruvo Brain Institute and the World Market Center.

Those and other projects are transporting Las Vegas to a new level, he said. But the new city hall project didn't come without controversy and he praised the City Council for moving ahead on it.

"We took a lot of heat," Goodman said. "They stood up and they were counted. They said they wanted to provide jobs. They said they wanted to revitalize the downtown. They wanted to end blight. They wanted this to be an important building in the city."

He noted that few of the current council members will be able to have offices in that building because they will be term-limited before it is finished.

Dimitri Vazelakis, president of west coast commercial development of Forest City, said construction on the new city hall would probably begin in about two months. Construction is expected to take about 24 to 26 months.

"Today we take an important step forward in the events of a new era of downtown Las Vegas," Vazelakis said. "Thanks to the mayor's vision and dedication to economic development, a new city hall will be built on this site, which will set in motion a number of events that will create jobs and potential. It will generate new tax revenue and will stimulate private investment in downtown."

Vazelakis said that private investment is already taking place. Forest City and LiveWork already own four blocks to the south of the new City Hall site. And on one of those blocks construction is progressing on the new regional transportation center, which is scheduled to be opened later this year.

"With the completion of the City Hall, that will be the catalyst for us to develop the remaining three blocks into a mixed use civic, commercial and retail area and to create a vibrant civic center which will be surrounded and will be centered on the new city hall," Vazelakis said.

Queen had checkered past

Among those attending the event was Ann Meyers, the long-time former owner of the Queen of Hearts, who said seeing the property demolished was "bittersweet" for her.

"It gave me what everyone could possibly dream of," Meyers said as she looked at her former hotel-casino. "It's time for something new. It was so run down. It was so expensive to keep it up. And it was so difficult. And it's time for something new. And I'm so happy that the city is going to get it and build a beautiful new structure."

She said the structure was built in 1963 by Danny Jackson, who named it the Casbah Hotel and Casino. Jackson died shortly after it opened, so it had been run by several members of his family by the time Meyers became interested in it in 1976.

Meyers said after making a trip to Las Vegas that year, she decided she wanted to buy a casino property. She visited the Casbah, viewed five of the 100 guest rooms in the structure, and within 48 hours, she bought it from the Jackson family on Aug. 20, 1976.

"When I looked at the five rooms out of the hundred and signed the contract to purchase this I had no idea it was 'hooker haven.' I had never experienced, never met a hooker before in my life. And it was extremely difficult for me to cope with, especially considering I had two little girls and I had no more money. I had to move into the place. I had no more money to go anywhere else."

Meyers said "everyone assumed that I came along with that reputation, which was really hard to handle."

About 1990, she changed the name to the Queen of Hearts, trying to change the hotel's image, she said.

"I gave four-star service to a budget hotel and we had some wonderful return business as a result of trying so hard," she said. "I worked 10 to 12 hours every day. I lived in the hotel for six months because we couldn't afford to live anywhere else."

But she was eventually able to move out and took some of her equity to buy the nearby Nevada Hotel from pioneer gaming executive Jackie Gaughan in 1992.

Despite her efforts, the Queen of Hearts continued to be plagued by prostitution, drug activity, health and fire code violations and even a drive-by slaying.

According to Sun archives, Metro Police were called 680 times during 1994 and 1995 to the hotel, which sat across the street from the Clark County Detention Center. Meyers said many people who were released from jail spent their first night of freedom at the hotel and celebrated at the bar.

In December 1995, someone fired shots in the hotel's lobby, killing a 38-year-old man in what homicide investigators said was probably a drug-related slaying. In 1996, the City Council threatened to take away its business licenses, but Meyers was able to work out a deal with the city.

In 2000, an arson fire caused about $175,000 in damage.

In 2004, Meyers sold the Queen of Hearts and another downtown hotel, the 160-room Nevada Hotel, to Barrick Gaming Corp. for $7.1 million. Barrick then sold the property in 2005 to Tamares Group, which was acquired by LiveWork Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Meyers said she had used the money she made from the sale of the two hotels for other property investments in the city.

"It's the American dream," she said. "If you work hard in America, this is what you can accomplish."

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