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September 15, 2014

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Joe Downtown:

Joe Downtown: Liquor battle brewing at Fremont Street Experience

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Steve Marcus

Karen Duddleston, right, Las Vegas business licensing director, right, leads a meeting at a City of Las Vegas office building at Bonanza Road and Rancho Drive Monday, April 14, 2014. City officials and business owners discussed a new liquor ordinance proposed for downtown Las Vegas.

Updated Tuesday, April 15, 2014 | 8:27 a.m.

Having attended week after week of meetings with city leaders, downtown liquor store operators on Fremont Street say they did what city officials asked them to do.

They put up signs telling people not to open containers inside their stores, they hired security, they warned customers not to drink within 1,000 feet of their stores.

But Monday afternoon, many of them left yet another meeting, this one led by Karen Duddleston, Las Vegas business licensing director, believing the city won’t be happy until they have been put out of business.

Their evidence: A draft report for a new ordinance that would have them close their liquor stores at 7 p.m. Another part of the draft said liquor stores could not display or advertise. But no such restrictions, they noted, applied to the casinos in the Fremont Street Experience and its outdoor bars.

“It’s so corrupt and greedy,” said Aliza Elazar-Higuchi, owner of Souvenir Super Mart, 322 Fremont St.

Miles Ohye, Mainland Division vice president of ABC Stores, which operates a gift shop at 23 Fremont St., said the city’s stepped-up enforcement of open container laws — which were virtually unenforced before — is driving customers away.

“People don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “We’re chasing them away.”

Some 40 people showed up for the meeting in the city’s building at Bonanza Road and Rancho Drive. Most of them directed their criticism of a draft ordinance that included strict restrictions on liquor stores on or near a “pedestrian mall,” which directly targets the Fremont Street Experience.

The Experience has been closed to vehicular traffic since 1994. The city celebrated the opening of the Fremont Street Experience, complete with its electronic canopy-screen over four of its five blocks, in December 1995.

Since then, city officials have generally looked the other way when it came to enforcing codes that include not allowing people to drink alcohol within 1,000 feet of the liquor store they purchased it in.

But that was before downtown’s revitalization. Zappos.com moved into the former City Hall last year, at Stewart Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. The company’s CEO Tony Hsieh started a private redevelopment agency, as well. Some say the redevelopment is drawing customers to east Fremont Street and away from the Experience. Where few walked on that street just a year ago, thousands flock to it now on weekends. That includes a healthy dose of children, many of whom visit the playground inside the Container Park, which Hsieh had built via his Downtown Project redevelopment group.

Now the city appears to be trying to figure out whether downtown is a pub-crawling adult playground, or a place that could draw more residents if more traditional businesses, such as grocery stores and dry cleaners, can be enticed to move in.

In February, Duddleston gave a report to the city about how the city’s own incentives had led to an explosion in liquor licenses downtown. The Sun summed up the report like this: “The number of alcohol retailers, especially liquor stores, downtown is a contributing factor to underage drinking, consumption from open containers, gang activity and vagrancy.”

Liquor store owners and employees disputed that Monday. One of them, Albert Gabay, owner of Crazy Ely Western Village, 321 Fremont St., hired Consumer Opinion Services to ask drinking people on Fremont Street where their drinks came from.

The report, which Gabay gave to Duddleston, includes responses from a survey of 245 people. Of those, Gabay said, about 25 percent indicated their drinks came from gift shops that sell alcohol; the rest came mostly from casinos on Fremont Street.

Duddleston calmly told the gathered that she was simply the messenger, she was there to gather ideas, and that the draft report was simply that: a draft.

At least one store owner gave this suggestion: “Leave us alone.”

Elazar-Higuchi suggested that if crime is the issue, then allow the liquor stores to contribute to a security fund — the casino members of the Fremont Street Experience pay monthly fees — proportional to their store size.

She also supported the idea of making all of the Experience a “consumption zone,” so that no one was restricted in sales.

Few left the meeting satisfied. Duddleston said she would hold another similar meeting on Thursday.

Store owners issued dire warnings should the city ignore their pleas.

“If (this ordinance) happens, hundreds of people will lose their jobs,” Elazar-Higuchi predicted, because liquor stores would be forced to close. “And I have been here since before the (Experience) canopy. Whatever happened to the free market?”

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.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Albert Gabay's name and the findings of a report presented to the city in February. | (April 15, 2014)

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