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Downtown saloon, casino face off in ‘David and Goliath’ court case

Updated May 8, 2021 - 3:57 pm

Hogs & Heifers Saloon is the kind of place where the bartender in sparkly cowboy boots dances on the bar, screaming “Welcome to the Jungle!” into a bullhorn.

Since its 2005 establishment in Las Vegas, the bar has survived the gamut of challenges: a nearly eight-year closure of the neighboring Lady Luck, a recession and the effects of COVID-19.

But a civil bench trial set to start Monday will determine its fate on Third Street. The case pits the saloon against its landlord, Downtown Grand, which transformed Lady Luck and opened under the new name in 2013.

“It’s a fight for every small business, a fight for every female-owned business,” said Michelle Dell, the owner of Hogs & Heifers. “It’s a David and Goliath type story.”

The saloon sued Downtown Grand and its business entities in 2019, alleging that the landlord breached their lease agreement and was illegally attempting to evict her business. The Downtown Grand countersued the bar later that year.

At the forefront of the lawsuit is a dispute over the portion of Third Street, between Ogden and Stewart avenues, that separates the two properties.

For 13 years, the saloon held charity events and festivals on the street in front of its establishment.

But Hogs & Heifers hasn’t been able to host events since 2019 because the Downtown Grand is using it solely for valet despite it being identified as a common area in the lease, according to the saloon’s complaint.

Dell is seeking compensation for lost funds and sponsorships. She also wants the right to use the street.

Downtown Grand’s attorneys at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP argue in court documents that the lease requires the tenant to receive approval from the landlord to use that space.

The resort’s countersuit states that Hogs & Heifers’ complaint is “nothing more than a smokescreen” and asks District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez to terminate the 20-year lease.

Downtown Grand attorneys allege in their filing that the tenant violated the lease by not providing the proper prerequisite for holding a St. Patrick’s Day event in 2019. The casino also blames the patrons at Hogs & Heifers for fights and other documented police activity in the area.

“The landlord is the truly aggrieved party here,” the attorneys wrote. “Instead of cooperating with Landlord and abiding by its Lease, H&H chooses to create a consistently unsafe environment that Landlord can no longer allow to continue.”

Revitalizing downtown

Hogs & Heifers opened downtown at 201 N. Third St., the site of the old Trolley Stop. At the grand opening, then-Mayor Oscar Goodman rode to the bar on the back of Dell’s red motorcycle.

Since the start, bartenders in cropped tops carried “in your face with a bullhorn female bravado,” a specific description of the business brand clarified in the lease.

It was that brand that first attracted Las Vegas to the bar in 2003. At the time, the saloon in New York City was known as the All-American classic country dive bar where celebrity visitors and bartenders danced on top of the counters.

Dell said she was courted by Goodman and other city officials to be a part of the revitalization of downtown.

“It was dark and dingy and dirty, and people didn’t want to go down there. At one point, our former mayor called downtown Third Street a ‘blight,’” she said. “We were there to bring it light.”

The plan to use Third Street as a pedestrian mall for businesses to host large-scale events was central to Dell’s lease agreement, her complaint said.

In 2004, she worked with her original landlord to present to city officials a plan for how that space would be used, including for events in front of Hogs & Heifers.

The City Council then gave up the public’s right to use that portion of the street to the private property owner, a process known as vacating the street.

Former Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic declined to comment on the lawsuit, asserting that it was a matter of contract between the parties involved.

“When the city vacates something, they make a decision, and they let it go,” he said. “And then the people that own it now have to make a deal with the people that want it.”

‘Naughty do-gooders’

The spot where Hogs & Heifers is on Third Street was commonly referred to as “The Block” as plans to bring downtown to life were underway. The bar’s name comes from “hog,” a slang term for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and “heifer,” a young or virgin cow.

Inside, suspenders from ironworkers hang from the ceiling. First responders and veterans have left behind emblems of their service. Stickers from all around the world are displayed outside.

At the saloon, women are encouraged to get up on the bar for a dance — as well as encouraged to remove their bras and hang them on the wall. For charity, patrons pay to guess how many there are and how much they weigh.

“We’re not angels. We’re naughty do-gooders,” Dell said.

On Wednesday, Dell, a zany blonde wearing rectangular glasses and electric red sneakers, pointed to a bench outside the bar. It was shipped from New York City, where it was a fixture outside the first Hogs & Heifers.

That bar closed in 2015 after 23 years — after a developer purchased the building and quadrupled the rent.

Dell said she is terrified that history is repeating itself.

“To me, ultimately, this is about starving me out,” Dell said. “At the end of the day, it’s really about the value of real estate. And I’m in their way.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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