Tuesday, March 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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.
"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.
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."