Granting of permits for outdoor bars on Fremont Street Experience temporarily halted

Citing concerns that the city had improperly abdicated some of its land use powers, Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez on Thursday temporarily halted the granting of more permits to build or operate outdoor bars on the Fremont Street Experience.

The temporary restraining order, which will remain in place until a broader hearing on the subject scheduled for Sept. 13, might have no practical effect. Construction of bars at the Golden Gate and Golden Nugget can continue, but the order prevents the city of Las Vegas from issuing them liquor licences. The Golden Gate bar is supposed to be finished on Sept. 12 with the Golden Nugget coming later.

Golden Gate majority owner Derek Stevens said the current work mainly affects the facade. He said the bar behind the construction barrier has been there for several years and is licensed.

But the order could open the avenue to constricting the broad autonomy that Fremont Street Experience has exercised to operate the tourist corridor for nearly 20 years.

The ruling is an offshoot of a 3-year-old lawsuit brought by Granite Gaming Group, owner of the Mermaid and La Bayou casinos, because it was denied permission to operate a temporary bar on the street while its neighbors could. Granite Gaming CEO Steve Bernstine has claimed he lost out because he never became a dues-paying member of Fremont Street unlike some other businesses there.

The latest twist in the case comes in the wake of a trend in the past couple of years to put bars and lounge areas in the open air attached to hotels. Golden Gate and Golden Nugget already have such bars in operation, as do Binion’s, The D Las Vegas and the Four Queens.

In stopping future permits, Gonzalez said, in ruling from the bench, “My (problem) is that the Fremont Street Experience is authorizing the Golden Gate and the Golden Nugget and maybe others to permanently build improvements on city property without any approval at all by the citizens of Las Vegas or the City Council.”

In spelling this out, she said she was not concerned about temporary structures that can be moved quickly.

In disagreeing with that view, Fremont Street attorney Todd Bice said the mall’s governing documents approved by the state and city in the early 1990s specifically approved this structure. The city will not reopen the mall as a street and a number of permanent structures, such as the new Slotzilla zip line, have been built there without challenge.

But James Jimmerson, the attorney for Granite Gaming, cast the alleged flaws with the Fremont Street structure and violating constitutional protections for due process and equal protection.

“It is a messed-up system that somebody has not thought through,” Jimmerson said. “There has been a wholesale abdication of the city’s responsibility in favor a self-serving, self-dealing set of members that is the Fremont Street Experience.”

But Granite Gaming, countered Bice, merely wanted “to dictate to Fremont Street Experience how it operates the mall. (Granite) doesn’t want to pay the dues to be a member, but (Granite) wants to dictate it. And if (Granite) can’t dictate it, then it wants the court to dictate it.”

Deputy City Attorney Philip Byrnes said the city would fight a judge trying to rein in its police powers.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.