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April 15, 2014

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Joe Downtown: In tavern-heavy Fremont East District, underage drinking abounds

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Leila Navidi

People with a case of beer hang out in the Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013.

Fremont Street Enforcement - July 2013

Officer I. Williams cards Christopher Stovner, 22, in the Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Two cops rode side by side on horseback. Six officers stood in designated spots while about 18 more shifted in and out through the night. Another eight Downtown Rangers kept watch, with videotape.

This was the latest attempt to keep control of the Fremont East Entertainment District, which has been plagued in recent months with spillover from nearby First Friday celebrations. City officials and business owners have grown increasingly concerned about drinking and foolish behavior among the mostly underage crowd.

On this Friday, there was plenty to discourage idiocy.

Each tavern hired its own security, and some charged a $5 cover. Police checked the IDs of anyone who looked too young to drink, which by midnight seemed to be almost all of the 500-plus people standing on the street gabbing, ogling and stumbling.

In fact, many admitted that they were younger than 21 — but not to police.

Click to enlarge photo

Liliana Villegas, 19, drinks beer with her friends outside in the Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013.

Officers could have ticketed any of the revelers for violating the city's open-container law. By law, you can't drink on the street, not even in Fremont East, an ironic twist given that the city stoked its development in large part by encouraging the proliferation of bars. City officials established low-cost liquor licenses and eliminated distance requirements between taverns to help the area grow.

But on this Friday night, there were too many people to check.

The city’s plan is working. Within about a block of Fremont East sit seven bars and five tavern/restaurants. Another block over, there are two more joints that serve alcohol. By October, at least three more will set up shop in Container Park a block away. A bar is going to open inside a theater at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, and another is coming to retail space in the Ogden. Plans were just announced for three more taverns four blocks east.

•••

Do you bite the hand that feeds you? With so many people breaking the law, do you ticket or arrest a few to make an example? Would that cause the crowd to dissipate or anger the volatile group?

Chris Curtis, a former Metro sergeant who now heads the Rangers, is tasked with figuring out how to deal with the problems that have come with the successful redevelopment of Fremont East.

It's now 12:30 a.m.

"Get a camera on that guy," Curtis tells one of his employees.

He points to a man standing on the sidewalk completely spaced out, staring at the sky with a huge grin on his face. He's catatonic, unmoving.

Another crew of officers shows up, including a sergeant Curtis knows. They trained together and shared a room at the police academy. The sergeant is graying at the temples, a no-nonsense drill sergeant but funny. He cracks everyone up.

"Bring that kid over here," he tells his charges.

Three cops, one of them Marine-built with muscles on muscles, walk across the street and bring over a very tall, young black man in a baseball cap notched so tightly it doesn't fit right and sits high on his head.

Sarge walks up to him. The kid, without prompting, takes off his cap and looks at the ground. He looks ashamed. Respectful. He's nodding. It's like a father telling his son what's what.

"What's he saying?" I ask Curtis.

"Telling him not to act foolish," Curtis says.

The talk is over, and the kid walks across the street. He and some friends quietly slip away.

"Sometimes you make one example and it makes a difference," one of the cops says.

By 1 a.m., there's no letup. It's still well over 100 degrees, and the crowds keep coming. No one seems to yawn.

"They're getting drunk," Curtis says, worried.

Click to enlarge photo

People with a case of beer hang out in the Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013.

•••

Five years ago, no one saw this coming.

First Friday has been taking place for 10 years a mile southwest. It ends at 11 p.m.

But Fremont East's popularity has grown, and when First Friday shuts down, a good percentage of its patrons head east. The crowds grow so large, and so many people sit outside and drink — the bars either fill to capacity or ban drinkers who aren't old enough to get in — fears are starting to break through the gleam of downtown's growth.

Last Friday was another test aimed at trying to figure out a way to maintain some kind of control, or at least gain enough of a grip that if something goes wrong, police would have ample space, time and staff to deal with it.

A single shooting, for example, could torpedo everything positive that's happened on a street that no one wanted anything to do with for so many decades, local tavern owners say.

After First Friday two months ago, the city shut down the bar section of Fremont Street. Not as many police were on hand, though. Fights took place, and although no one was seriously hurt, business owners described the scene as "ugly."

Last month, the street stayed open, and people poured into it, even though vehicles were trying to get through. Business owners say police shut down the road by 1:30 a.m.

This month, there was talk of putting a fence around the street. One option included getting business owners to agree to make their events private. Another was simply to check IDs and keep out anyone underage.

Instead, officials tried a larger police presence. Some business owners also agreed not to blast music into the street to lessen the street-party feel.

Click to enlarge photo

A packed Fremont East District on Friday, July 5, 2013.

Some held to that. At least two did not.

Nothing diminished the crowds.

One kid, who looked about 16, balanced himself against a trash can and stared at a wall, unable to focus. He swayed slightly.

"Drink all of it," a teenage girl ordered another, who put to her mouth and chugged an airplane-sized bottle of moscato, a sugary starter wine that's big business these days.

Kids regularly carry large quantities of beer, not always in something as obvious as a cardboard box.

Two feet from Curtis, a young man stood in shorts no baggier than normal. Suddenly, like Shriner clowns piling out of an impossibly small car, he pulled four bottles of Corona and two 24-ounce cans of Modelo from his shorts. He and his friends stood and drank, saying nothing to one another.

Two Metro officers checked their IDs. They were of age.

"A curfew would work," one of the officers suggested. "They do it on the Strip."

"Get these girls off the street and all these guys go with 'em," another said.

No one younger than 18 can be on the Strip after 9 p.m. without a guardian. Could that work one night a month downtown?

The thing is, the city already has a curfew. It has been on the books since 1948. It prohibits anyone younger than 18 from being out after midnight on weekends without a guardian.

It hasn't worked.

At 4 a.m., a few hours after Curtis ends his night, Fremont East is still packed with people.

Councilman Bob Coffin said a curfew and “all options” are being considered.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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  1. Pardon me, Joe. "No one saw this coming?" Light a fire in a tinder-dry forest and not see a forest fire in your future? The belief that opening scores of alcohol related businesses in a relatively small area would never create a huge problem is preposterous. Almost without exception there are alcohol related deaths or incidents reported on a daily basis, so how could "No one see this coming?" This was not only foreseeable, it was a given to occur. We have Oscar "Mighty Mouth" Goodman to thank for the disaster that is known as "Fremont East." But, of course, as long as there is money to be made, both for private industry and government coffers, who really gives a rat's ass?

  2. Disaster? What a foolish statement. Growing pains is a more apt term. These districts exist in every major metropolitan city in America. Get over your self righteousness.

  3. Just ticket the kids that are drinking, the city will make money & after enough kids are losing money the word will get around. Why are you there if your not doing your job. I wouldn't want to go where there are a bunch of kids drinking. It hurts business doesn't it?

  4. Oh no! A bunch of small-time operators are threatening profits of big casinos as entertainment hotspots! Quick, let's run a story on underage drinking or something else so that the city will react negatively!

    Seriously, I'd rather a kid grab a Budweiser on Fremont than a vial of cocaine in any one of the nightclubs in the Strip properties that have been found trafficking narcotics and prostitution. Because am I seriously supposed to believe that no underage drinking EVER occurs in the major resorts?

    I can believe however that there is a vested interest in shutting down threatening operations such as Fremont East, the Huntridge Theater renovation, and any other activities where casinos can't get a piece of the action.

  5. "By law, you can't drink on the street, not even in Fremont East"

    I would be interested in legal clarification here. As the law was explained to me by a defense attorney, this is not true. Those over 21 can indeed drink alcohol on city sidewalks if it is a poured drink still in the cup served to you by a licensed alcohol-serving establishment from where you purchased it.

    You cannot, however, have an open container of alcohol (that you purchased as a sealed container of alcohol) on the street.

    Sipping a yard-long margaritas purchased from a street-side bar? Legal. Sipping a PBR bought from 7-11? Illegal.

  6. "..admitted that they were younger than 21 -- but not to police." Sounds like this is part of the problem. Police think the delinquents are of legal age so they pass them by.

  7. From my perspective, this need not be such a big deal. Law Enforcement Departments all over the country conduct raids. Go raid these loitering delinquents. Arrest them. Take them to the Precinct Station. Sift the older from the younger and go from there. That will break up their "Party Atmosphere" if done regularly.