A woman cautiously approached the door to Del Prado Jewelers, one of only three active tenants in the downtown Neonopolis mall. Even after owner John Del Prado buzzed her in she seemed reluctant to let go of her trepidation.
"I was a little freaked out by this place," she said, indicating the vacant storefronts and lack of people at Neonopolis, which lurks at the east end of the Fremont Street Experience. "But they told me it was ..."
"Safe?" said Del Prado.
Del Prado knows her attitude well. He has faced it since relocating his jewelry store to Neonopolis five years ago, and admits it's been tough to stay in business in a nearly empty mall that had no central air conditioning for two years.
"A lot of people, when they think of Neonopolis, they think, 'Vacant. Empty. Ghost town,' " Del Prado said. "I don't. I see the potential of this place."
Now the property's developer, Rohit Joshi, says the nearly 10-year-old, three-story mall is on the verge of meeting that potential. Denny's announced one of its restaurants will move in on the building's west side, facing the Fremont Street Experience, and is one of a dozen new tenants who have moved in or plan to this year.
Those familiar with downtown have heard this before and have watched businesses sputter, fail, or never open at all.
There's a reason people call the building "Neoflopolis," and its stubborn aversion to success stands out even more because of what's flourishing all around it: the booming Fremont East district, the under-construction Mob Museum, the crowds on Fremont Street, the planned relocation of Zappos' headquarters just two blocks away.
Even downtown's cheerleader, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, greeted recent announcements with skepticism.
"I've heard it too many times," he said. "I hope the air conditioning is fixed. I can just see Denny's going in there without air conditioning. They'll cook the hamburgers on the floor.
"If Joshi's serious and really wants to do something, the city of course will support him. But if it's more of the nonsense that we've had over the past years, I'm going to tell at least the people I know in the city that they've got to be careful."
Besides Denny's, the list of new tenants includes Johnny Jimenez's Las Vegas Toy Shack, Luna Rossa Italian restaurant, NV Sweets, a Mediterranean restaurant, and kiosks selling energy drinks and smokeless cigarettes.
NV Sweets is already open, offering sandwiches, espresso and boba tea and other goodies. While aware of the building's history, co-owner Brenda Reeder said it's a good central location for the catering part of her business and is close to downtown office workers.
Before moving in, she and her business partner checked out the site at night and were satisfied that the private security and police presence around Fremont Street keep it safe.
Jimenez, who appears regularly on "Pawn Stars" to appraise vintage toys, said the Fremont market is attractive.
"Fremont has taken a whole new direction," he said, noting the success of the Fremont East club district and a zipline ride that allows people to soar under the video canopy.
"It's a new crowd, a younger crowd. This is the scene," Jimenez said.
Valentina Molli and her family are opening Luna Rossa. They have a location at Lake Las Vegas and own several restaurants in California as well.
"This is the starting point," said the Italian-born Molli, adding that her friends in Italy are just as interested in downtown Las Vegas as the Strip. "Las Vegas was created here. Old-style Las Vegas, it's still an attraction. Now it's coming back."
Joshi said the goal is to get businesses and kiosks along "Neon Alley," the breezeway facing the Fremont Street Experience, open by July 4.
Bernie Cheater, a Winnipeg sports bar owner, said he plans to open a Mediterranean restaurant within 45 days. Luna Rossa is expected to open in August or September. Plans call for Denny's to open between February and April.
If those plans come to fruition, about 50,000 square feet of Neonopolis' 235,000 square feet of leasable space would be occupied.
RIGHT PLACE, WRONG DESIGN
It seems one thing or another has always been planned for Neonopolis, which opened in 2002.
It was a joint project by Prudential Real Estate and the City of Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, which owns the land and parking garage under the mall and still owes $15.6 million on it. FAEC Holdings Wirrulla LLC bought the mall in 2006.
There were high hopes that Neonopolis would draw tourists, workers and suburbanites to a downtown hub to shop, eat, recreate or maybe catch a movie.
But there was one strike against it right from the start, said Robert Dorgan, who studied the building with students of the Downtown Design Center, part of UNLV's architecture school.
"The outside is about as awful as you can get. In an urban area, your buildings have to face the street, particularly on the ground floor where the retail is."
A few storefronts face Fremont Street and Fourth Street, "but you go around the other three sides of that building, there's nothing," Dorgan said.
The tenant mix presented a problem too, he said. At one point, a video game arcade and a bowling alley were in Neonopolis, but "those are things that you would want to do in your neighborhood. Nobody goes to Vegas to see a movie."
Joshi touted new tenants in 2008 . The Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art moved in, as did the local Telemundo television station and artists who used a former food court for studios. A previous version of the Italian restaurant and a nightclub announced plans to move in, but never did.
Joshi also said Star Trek: The Experience, which used to operate at the Hilton, was going to relocate to Neonopolis.
Later, entertainer Tony Sacca opened Las Vegas Rocks Cafe and offered dinner and nightly shows.
Whatever momentum was there was canceled when Joshi got into a dispute with the building's air conditioning supplier resulting in the air being cut off.
Telemundo has its own air conditioners, and the fine arts museum and Del Prado toughed it out. Everyone else called it quits .
That dispute has been settled and cool air is flowing again. And Joshi said he has learned some lessons about managing his expectations.
"What we were doing in the past was, 'Let's open up the big projects.' Now we will focus on segments, build some momentum. The first floor is the most important. That's where all the action is."
Del Prado is confident that within a year, his customers will be walking comfortably in a busy mall instead of wondering why no one is around.
"Now they're at the turning point, with air conditioning. And are we coming out of the recession? That's the key for any city. I've got a feeling things are moving in a better direction."
Contact reporter Alan Choate at email@example.com or 702-229-6435.