Liquor prohibition on Fremont Street would stun Mayor Fred

Somewhere in the barroom of the Great Beyond, Fred Hesse is scratching his gin-soaked noggin.

Don’t remember Fred?

He was the mayor of Las Vegas from 1925-1931 during the heart of Prohibition. But he wasn’t exactly holding hands with Carrie A. Nation.

As mayor, Hesse believed in the power of booze and the potential of Fremont Street. He ran his own still. He circulated with rumrunners and saloonkeepers. Hesse not only disagreed with Prohibition, he flouted it openly and was arrested for violating the Volstead Act.

Mayors come and go, but Hesse set a standard of conspicuous alcohol consumption on Fremont Street. (Not that former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman didn’t give him some competition.)

I can only imagine what Hesse would think of the attempt in recent months by some city officials to slow the flow of firewater on Fremont Street in the name of such quaint notions as public safety and separating the underaged from the inebriated. He would probably think he was hallucinating.

The metallic Legoland known as the Downtown Project’s Container Park offers in close proximity booze for mom and dad and a playground for the little milk-drinkers. That nearness makes at least a couple of City Council members uncomfortable.

While finding a cocktail has never been a problem on Fremont, its casinos now aggressively offer the stuff at bars that reach into the street. About all that’s left to do is fit visitors with funnels and force the whiskey down their gullets.

Then there’s the increase in packaged liquor sales, which some members of the bar fraternity consider an alarming trend. How dare anyone come to Fremont Street and not pay for alcohol by the glass. Why, the future of the bar napkin industry hangs in the balance.

In what Mayor Fred might have called an attempt at Prohibition, the city has placed a six-month moratorium on applications for new packaged liquor sales. Six months? Hey, that’s 180 days without wide-open expansion. We’re practically Methodists.

It can be argued that much of the great downtown redevelopment story is fueled by increasing the availability of alcohol in the form of city-subsidized bars and restaurants. It also can be argued that liquoring up the locals isn’t the most sophisticated redevelopment strategy ever created. But there you have it.

Around Fremont Street, the drinking lamp is always lit. Even the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement plans to celebrate “Repeal Day” on Dec. 5, the date that marks the end of Prohibition.

As Mayor Fred might have said, “Any excuse for a party.”

Into that festive atmosphere strolls City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, who volunteers that she doesn’t drink but isn’t morally opposed to it. She is, however, opposed to allowing liquor near the kiddies and hates seeing people able to buy booze by the jug in an area that is supposed to be sobering up its economic development.

“I don’t think you should have 23 bars near where children are playing,” Tarkanian says. “It doesn’t make sense. That’s what they want to do there. I am not for that. They’re swimming in alcohol over there. For God’s sake, how much do they need?”

The answer appears to be that they’ll have another, and make it a double.

Oh, casino and bar interests don’t want the packaged retailers to proliferate. They want drop-in drinkers, not the unwashed partiers who never leave. And the liquor stores want to increase sales in an area that is showing signs of vitality. But the answer is more, as long as they’ve got a piece of it.

“Does anybody remember Block 16?” College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green asks rhetorically about the infamous downtown red-light district. “The intent originally was to limit liquor sales, actually, to a two-block area that included Block 17.”

When liquor sales spread, Block 16 became more known for its brothel cribs than its barrooms.

With the cops under pressure to police a place riddled with gray areas and overflowing with a wide-open tradition, calling for even slight restrictions can sound like a return to Prohibition. For city officials, the greater challenge will be making sure the rules apply equally.

Although Mayor Fred would be terribly disappointed, the long-term future of downtown redevelopment could depend on what they order next.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.