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Las Vegas Fremont Street businesses face dicey road to recovery

Updated May 7, 2020 - 12:54 pm

The lights are off, and everybody is home.

On a typical day, people soar overhead on the zip line at the Fremont Street Experience, under the dazzling LED light shows of the canopy. Tourists and locals alike, often of questionable sobriety, commingle at the Experience for live concerts and form lines out the doors of their favorite, neon-lit bars.

On Wednesday, a chain-link fence blocked the entrance to the canopied, subdued Experience walkway. Neonopolis is cordoned off. The sidewalks on Fremont Street East are empty, save for a handful of people biking or picking up food from a restaurant curb.

The statewide shutdown and travel limitations that began in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic have left businesses in the heart of downtown in a precarious position.

Count Therapy general manager Maria Horta among those concerned the businesses have closed their doors for good.

She said the bar and restaurant at 518 E. Fremont St. is losing tens of thousands of dollars a month during the shutdown, and reopening as a dine-in establishment with limited capacity won’t solve the financial woes.

“I lose my business if I open the doors; I lose my business if I shut the doors,” Horta said.

Sales at the bar and restaurant plummeted at least 80 percent in the two weeks preceding its March 18 closure, she said. The establishment reopened for curbside pickup May 2, but construction on the surrounding streets forces customers or delivery drivers to park a block or two away just to get to the curb.

It’s hampering business for Therapy and its neighbors, Horta said. To make matters worse, she said, she recently learned rent will increase by 3 percent.

“We can barely afford the rent itself when we only have $300 in sales everyday,” she said.

Neonopolis

A drop in state tourism has hit Fremont Street businesses in the pocket book, particularly a business complex such as Neonopolis.

The owner of two wedding chapels in the complex is already considering 2020 a write-off. It didn’t look that way to begin the year.

Ben Silvano said February was the best-ever month for his chapel businesses. On Feb. 29 alone he had 110 weddings. He was planning expansive remodels and expanding his photography division.

“Then March began and the world ends,” said Silvano, who also owns a chapel at Westgate Las Vegas. It was his worst month ever.

He’s expecting to lose roughly 60 percent to 70 percent of typical revenue over the next three months, reducing his remodeling plans to smaller touch-ups. His customer base consists almost entirely of out-of-town folks looking to tie the knot, he said.

Silvano is the chapel owner who sued Clark County and Gov. Steve Sisolak last month for marriage to be deemed an essential activity.

These days Silvano just hopes to survive until the 2021 wedding season begins in February or March.

In the meantime, he’s struggling to acquire government aid intended for small businesses during the pandemic. Without it, he’s concerned his businesses will go belly up.

“I haven’t seen a penny from any of those plans, and I’ve applied for all of them,” Silvano said.

The smaller establishments at Neonopolis are concerned about reopening with limited capacity. For Don’t Tell Mama, which has a capacity of 100, a quarter-limit capacity would be difficult to juggle while properly staffing the establishment, co-owner Joanna Pham said.

She is also concerned about being able to enforce social distancing inside her bar, which is smaller than 10,000 square feet.

“I think public safety is very important,” Pham said, “but I wasn’t expecting to be closed longer than two or three weeks.”

Johnny Jimenez Jr. plans to open up the aisles of his toy store, limit the number of customers inside at one time and designate one employee the money handler. He estimated 60 percent of his customers are tourists, meaning a likely drop in revenue.

Jimenez isn’t sure what his customer base will look like when he can again open Toy Shack. Regardless, he hopes the business can provide some happiness for whichever customer walks in his door.

“I think people need that right now,” Jimenez said.

Recovery?

Lifting pandemic restrictions doesn’t necessarily mean the people will come.

“I’ve seen many posts from casinos about the measures they intend to implement to keep customers safe,” said Dublin-based Ellie Sutton, who has visited Las Vegas at least once a year for the last 12 years. “While I commend them, I fear it will take away what was always so great about Vegas — the carefree atmosphere.”

Others, like Milwaukee resident Mike O’Neil, said they will be back in just a few months.

“Fremont will come back strong,” said O’Neil, who has a trip to Las Vegas booked for mid-November. “It is iconic and the people-watching is spectacular.”

A University of Florida survey conducted in mid-April showed roughly 37 percent said they don’t want to rebook canceled trips until two to six months after the virus is contained. Only 6 percent would be comfortable rebooking within a week after the virus is contained.

Similarly, easing guidelines for businesses doesn’t guarantee they will open.

So cautions Stephen Miller, the director of UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research. Business owners must feel they are ready, safe and able to welcome customers.

What would a recovery and return to normalcy for Fremont Street look like, anyway?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Miller said.

He expects a slow economic recovery for Fremont Street, adding the caveat it’s “dangerous business” to forecast a future under unprecedented circumstances such as the pandemic.

The party doesn’t stop

Fremont Street is quiet but at least one of its resident owners is trying to keep the music going.

Even after restrictions are lifted, Carlos “Big Daddy” Adley recognizes it may be awhile before patrons feel comfortable filling his Fremont venues: the Fremont Country Club and Backstage Bar & Billiards.

His plan is to bring the party to the people.

Adley is launching an online entertainment network he’s calling “kind of an MTV for the big kids,” triplebtv.vegas. He expects it to feature footage of previous shows at the venues, live shows, a comedy hour and documentaries. The streams will be available on Facebook and YouTube, with expansion planned for other online channels.

People come to Las Vegas to forget their problems and find entertainment, Adley said. Fremont Street might as well stay entertaining.

“Live music keeps music alive,” he said.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

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