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October 25, 2014

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Downtown casino renovations maintain Old Vegas vibe

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Leila Navidi

The Golden Gate Hotel in downtown Las Vegas on Monday, March 19, 2012.

Golden Gate Renovations

The new lobby at the Golden Gate Hotel in downtown Las Vegas on Monday, March 19, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Golden Gate undergoes renovation

KSNV coverage of downtown's Golden Gate hotel undergoing a renovation and expansion, March 19, 2012.

Downtown Las Vegas is trying to shake the city's reputation as a place that likes to blow up old buildings.

While the Strip has been imploding casinos and replacing them with shiny new resorts, downtown is trying to update its image without forgetting the character of its past.

The Golden Gate, the first hotel and casino in Las Vegas, is adding a new entry and lobby, refurbishing rooms and expanding the casino on the site where it opened in 1906.

It follows renovations at the El Cortez, the Plaza and a new branding of Fitzgeralds as The D.

"People have a certain feel they expect from Vegas, and they get that here," Mark Brandenburg, president and CEO of the Golden Gate, said Monday.

With streets lighted by preserved neon signs from long-gone casinos and its penchant for renovation over demolition, downtown has the vibe of the Vegas of a 1960s James Bond movie.

Many of the casinos are playing off the recently opened Mob Museum, embracing a notorious and colorful past in a city known for shaking off shame like a bad hangover.

Brandenburg still talks proudly of the Golden Gate's famous shrimp cocktail, which his stepfather, Italo Ghelfi, and his partners brought from the San Francisco Bay area and introduced in Las Vegas in 1959.

The historical aspects could be what draws people back downtown after years of billion-dollar buildings on the Strip, casino and tourism experts say. Downtown could position itself to lure repeat visitors and those willing to venture away from the larger resorts.

"If they can add a more upscale type of an experience, downtown can draw people who may have already stayed on the Strip but are coming back looking for something new," said Seyhmus Baloglu, an assistant dean at UNLV's Harrah Hotel College who studies tourism and marketing.

"By adding festivals, music and other special events, they can draw people who might be staying at the Aria or the Bellagio to come downtown and increase the amount of money they spend while they're here," Baloglu said.

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and a growing arts district help provide those extras, as the hotels continue to revitalize themselves.

Click to enlarge photo

Mark Brandenburg, president and co-owner of the Golden Gate Hotel, stands in front of a new mural in the new entrance of the Golden Gate in downtown Las Vegas on Monday, March 19, 2012.

Behind the yellow construction walls and scaffolding marking the Golden Gate's first major renovation in 50 years, a new, more spacious lobby is taking shape, along with a five-story luxury tower that includes more than a dozen new suites and two high-roller penthouses.

The hotel and casino at 1 Fremont St., which began new construction in December, will have 122 refurbished rooms and a new high-limit gaming area by the time the project is finished mid-summer.

"It's difficult to say you're a boutique hotel when you have 2,000 rooms," Brandenburg said. "But with around 100 rooms, you can offer a higher level of personal experience. I'm not knocking the Strip, but people are starting to learn there are other properties in town besides the mega-resorts that can offer a Vegas experience."

Vegas visitors are finding an upscale experience that's a bit more affordable than a few miles south on Las Vegas Boulevard. Renovations at the Plaza include expensive furnishings purchased at discount prices from the recession ravaged and stalled Fontainebleau project.

"The Plaza is a great example of downtown benefiting from the Strip," said David Schwartz, director of the UNLV Gaming Research Center.

Schwartz and Baloglu agree that modern makeovers of the historic properties could pay off for downtown, especially if they can deliver luxury at a more affordable price.

"If the visitor counts continue to rise, as they are projected to do, and the Strip prices go up, as they may do, then there's a real opening for downtown," Schwartz said. "But it's important that the properties follow through by giving people an experience that will keep them coming back."

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  1. It's good some have awakened to the fact that preserving the heritage of Downtown LV has great value. Belatedly, I believe, they have come to the realization of their rash act of ridding Downtown of one of its most valuable assets in the construction of the multi-million $ canopy that has proven to be a dud in advancing the commercial interests of Downtown. One of Downtown's greatest assets and draws cost them next to nothing out-of-pocket and they thoughtlessly destroyed it. I am referring to the awesome excitement brought on by taking a trip Downtown to "see the lights!" Unless the canopy is torn down and vehicular traffic once more flows on Fremont Street, that is gone forever, replaced by a flashy, but revenue draining curiosity that has done little to boost the bottom line of the businesses that contribute to its ongoing cost.

  2. Downtown Las Vegas and Tropicana on The Strip are pretty the only ones who get it. While I don't like all the name changes Downtown, I do like the use of an existing structure while updating it as well. A shame the Stardust had to be destroyed without me having a chance to gamble there. Wouldn't Boyd have been able to rebrand the casino and perhaps add to that structure than to put all his cards into a new establishment that failed along with the empty Fountainbleau. If Sahara has any chance of reopening, I hope they don't have an itch to demolish the structure short of revamping it.

  3. I love Fremont Steet and places like the Golden Gate. For a while in the mid sixties the place was called the Hotel Sal Sagev.....Las Vegas spelled backwards.

  4. I like the canopy and it serves duel purpose, shade by day, entertainment by night and the fact is a pedestrian Fremont St is the best way to go. Glad to see the area evolving.

  5. I'm in favor of the Canopy while under the Canopy could stand some Gentrification, while now it smells too much of Beer, Bad Food and Urine. Wider Sidewalks (in this town of Moronic Drivers) and Bollards would also help. I would also like to see an Iron Ring as in London where every inch of the Central Business Districts is monitored by Cameras 24/7. Paint them Neon Pink if you want so the ACLU cannot say you are attempting to entrap people.

  6. I'm thrilled for what's happenin downtown. From our new city hall and transportation center, to our beautiful new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, things are really starting to gel. Las Vegas strEATs, the second Saturday of every month, is a wonderful outdoor food fare at the El Cortez. And every Friday morning til 2pm, downtown now hosts a Farmers Market at the old transportation center on Stewart!
    I also must take issue with well intentioned folks who put down the pedestrian mall. I, too loved to drive down Fremont Street in the old days. But in order for downtown to survive, something radical had to be done. I find that the throngs of people that gather under the "canopy" are having a truly entertaining experience. The stages offer wonderful entertainment, the casinos offer themselves open to the street, the Zip Line attraction is SO successful, it's being expanded. The concept of the pedestrian mall has even inspired New York's Times Square to give it a try.

  7. "If they can add a more upscale type of an experience, downtown can draw people who may have already stayed on the Strip but are coming back looking for something new," said Seyhmus Baloglu, an assistant dean at UNLV's Harrah Hotel College who studies tourism and marketing.

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    That contradicts the movement that Tony Hsieh has started downtown. Those events and businesses are NOT upscale and are drawing the wrong type of crowds downtown.