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September 23, 2014

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Joe Downtown:

Joe Downtown: Container Park opens as major draw for east Fremont area

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Christopher DeVargas

A look at the downtown Container Park on 7th Street and Fremont Street, which had its soft opening Nov. 25, 2013.

Container Park Opening

A look at the downtown Container Park on 7th Street and Fremont Street, which had its soft opening today, Monday Nov. 25, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Container Park Construction

The Mantis is seen after being installed at the Container Park downtown Friday, July 26, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Now the real trek eastward begins.

The downtown Container Park opened this afternoon to several hundred people, dozens of whom waited at the gate until they were allowed in after a 10-second countdown shortly after 1 p.m.

People who live downtown or in the suburbs, along with tourists, were drawn to the 34-outlet mall made up of several cubic, pre-made rooms. some of them stacked three stories tall.

And with its opening, people are able to get a clearer view, or sense the reality, of the redevelopment of a part of old downtown all but abandoned in previous years.

“It’s a dream made manifest, oh surely, oh surely. It’s a notion made from steel,” said Tony Bondi, who has lived in the nearby John S. Park/Huntridge downtown neighborhood nearly all of his 59 years. “It’s the greatest thing that’s happened on Fremont Street in my lifetime, at least east of 5th Street. How sweet. When I was a little kid, I rode my bicycle all around here. When I was about 12, it started going seriously downhill. It’s come a long ways.”

Others at the opening had never ventured downtown, or at least never east of the Fremont Street Experience, which consists of four blocks of casinos and hotels covered by an electric canopy.

“We went to the Hoover Dam this morning, then said, ‘Let’s go see (the Container Park),” said Sharon Lohman, who is from Anchorage, Alaska, but also has a condo in Henderson that she stays in when visiting Las Vegas.

She had been to the Experience, but never on east Fremont Street. Driving west on Boulder Highway, which isn’t the prettiest stretch of road, marked as it is by older motels, some abandoned, at least one empty, former car lot, trailer parks and more, she said, “well, it was kind of scary, to be quite honest.”

As she neared 9th, 8th and finally 7th Street, where the Container Park is located, she said, the view became nicer.

“I think this is going to help people come downtown a lot,” she said of the new mall.

Joel Krish, who is in film and television in Vancouver, British Columbia, came to see the place with Ella Jotie and Sharzad McRobie. Though having been to Las Vegas many times in the past, Krish said he had never considered coming downtown before.

“This is the closest I’ve been to downtown,” he said. “The closest I’d been before is watching 'Pawn Stars' on TV.”

“You never see pictures of this,” Krish added, then nodded toward the El Cortez. “I really like the old stuff.”

“And it’s nice getting off the Strip,” continued Jotie.

Posing for the occasional photo with a “Miss Downtown Las Vegas” sash across her red dress, 19-year-old Joy Thompson, who will attempt to represent Nevada in next year’s Miss USA pageant, said she knew about the Container Park because her mom, Kelly Ann, had worked for Zappos.

When the gates opened, people looked up the faux tree in the center of the mall, which is part of a large children’s play area, the centerpiece of which is a three-story tower that kids can climb inside of and use covered slides to get back down. Almost immediately, children were playing on the equipment.

Several stores weren’t yet opened for the soft opening because they had not yet obtained business licenses from the city. One operator said he hadn’t gotten his license because he filled out documents, only to find out that his store’s address had changed; he didn’t get new paperwork back to the city in time to be processed with the new address.

The four to five days of rain that hit Las Vegas last week also caused some minor flooding to a few of the businesses. One owner said the bright side is that it happened while construction workers were still around, so whatever fixes had to be made for water tightness would get done right away. Another owner wondered if the rain had seeped into the walls.

The Container Park is the work of Downtown Project, the $350 million private redevelopment agency whose work is focused mostly on the blocks around east Fremont Street. The project came into existence shortly after Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh announced he would move the mega-online retailer from Henderson into the former City Hall, about a half-mile northwest of the Container Park.

After City Hall was renovated and remodeled, Zappos moved in this fall. Meanwhile, Downtown Project appears to be near the end of its quest to buy up acres of downtown properties.

The Container Park is one of several ventures Downtown Project has embarked upon. At least three old motels are targeted for gutting and repurposing, as well as an old tavern, the Bunkhouse, and several smaller projects.

Hsieh walked among the new stores in the mall in his trademark Zappos T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes when it opened today.

Doug McPhail, Container Park’s retail space director, was beaming. After a little more than a year of construction, and some two years after the idea was conceived, the place was finally open.

“It was conceived as an idea with Tony (Hsieh), and at first it was across the street and literally a few shipping containers on a parking lot,” McPhail said. “Then it morphed into, ‘Well, it needs to be bigger and more prominent and part of the community.'”

So it moved to its location between 7th and 8th streets, he said, and continually changed.

“In most developments, it’s planned and you build it as planned,” he said. “With this, there was the flexibility to continually make it better and see a better way and change it if we wanted. And this is what we got out of it.”

As he spoke, children were playing in the “treehouse” tower, dozens of people were eating from Pinches Tacos or Pork & Beans, two eateries near the entrance, others were going in and out of Jojo’s Jerky store, some of the clothing boutiques and simply sitting in the sun.

Thom Line, who said he lives eight miles beyond downtown, was digitally recording the opening, part of his documentation of downtown’s rebirth.

“The neon has come back and it’s being taken over and upgraded and being turned into a portal for the 21st century,” said Line, a former rock ‘n’ roll radio disc jockey.

Around 4:30, a drum circle gathered next to the giant praying mantissa, a metallic sculpture that shoots flames out of its antennae, at the park's entrance.

Hsieh said the drums are meant to entice people off the streets, then "when it gets to a critical mass of people, we're going to ignite the flames."

He said he wants the drum circle to become a daily event as a way to kick off the evening.

Lisa Mayo De-Riso, a local marketer and lobbyist, sat down to take in the music and marvel at all the people on east Fremont, at 7th Street, on a Monday night in downtown Las Vegas.

"This is not the downtown that you and I remember, that's for sure," she said.

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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