Panel discusses continuing renaissance in downtown Las Vegas

Downtown Las Vegas in 2008 was a wasteland pockmarked by vacant buildings and broken bottles.

Financing dried up and projects planned for the urban core were abandoned.

The downtown area became just another victim of the recession.

But the neighborhood still had some believers who pulled together money to start businesses in the area.

Some of them joined a Wednesday night panel hosted by the Turnaround Management Association of Nevada.

The subject: the future of business in downtown.

“The trick with downtown is not to be a dumbed-down version of the Strip,” said Fifth Street Gaming CEO Seth Schorr, who is overseeing the transformation of the Lady Luck casino into the Downtown Grand for CIM Group.

He pointed to panelist Christopher LaPorte’s East Fremont Street bar, Insert Coin(s), as an example of the ways downtown can differentiate itself.

LaPorte said there were plenty of doubters when he opened his video game-themed bar last April. A year later, he has proved them wrong. Between 1,700 and 2,300 barhoppers pass through his doors on Friday and Saturday nights. Once a locals hangout, now 25 percent of those customers are tourists.

LaPorte surprised his East Fremont neighbors when he started a weekend cover charge. Naysayers said it would drive away clientele. The opposite is true, LaPorte said. Now he attracts downtown-curious customers from Henderson and Summerlin.

Fremont Street has built a reputation as a value-oriented, blue-collar version of the Las Vegas spectacle. It will likely remain that way for awhile longer, but value doesn’t necessarily mean free drinks and basement-price hotel rooms.

“There’s nothing wrong with value,” Schorr said, “But it doesn’t have to be cheap. It doesn’t have to be discounts.”

LaPorte urged other entrepreneurs to start businesses before the neighborhood is no longer up-and-coming, and real estate prices skyrocket.

Panelist Bill Arent, who oversees the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, said the city is doing its best to encourage more businesses to move to downtown. Parking and infrastructure remain concerns, but the situation is improving. When real estate developer Sam Cherry in 2004 built Soho Lofts, there was no sidewalk on his block. Now there are.

Panel members agreed that any conversation about redevelopment would be remiss without mention of online retailer Zappos, which is moving from Henderson to the old City Hall.

When LaPorte appeared before the City Council with the initial proposal for Insert Coin(s), then-Mayor Oscar Goodman mentioned Zappos. If LaPorte had any reservations about locating downtown, they instantly vanished.

“Zappos is now Big Brother, and I’m happy to have him here,” LaPorte said.

The only possible downside to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s investments is overblown expectations, Arent said, noting that change is slow, even with the Downtown Project’s $350 million revitalization fund behind it.

Contact reporter Caitlin McGarry at
cmcgarry@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

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