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Neon Museum on verge of major expansion along Las Vegas Boulevard

Updated May 14, 2019 - 11:26 pm

The Neon Museum is preparing to double its presence on famed Las Vegas Boulevard by leasing a nearby shuttered cultural center from the city of Las Vegas for $1 a year.

The center would be renamed Ne10, a combination of neon’s chemical symbol and atomic number.

The plan for the vacant Reed Whipple Cultural Center, which city officials say will elevate the cultural corridor, will be boosted by a proposed $2.2 million city grant to support operations.

The museum opened in 2012, a memorial to vintage Las Vegas signage. And it has a plan for the next 30 years, starting with taking over Reed Whipple to launch an indoor gallery, neon craft demonstrations, classrooms, offices and storage, CEO Rob McCoy said Tuesday. The center has been closed since summer 2016.

The back portion of the cultural center’s parking lot would effectively become the third neon-display boneyard for the nonprofit, adding to its main Neon Boneyard and Neon Boneyard North Gallery.

The Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday will consider leasing Reed Whipple to the museum for three years. The agreement includes an option for 27 additional years.

But Reed Whipple, named for a fiscally conservative Las Vegas banker who served on the Las Vegas City Commission starting in 1947, is in disrepair and needs some improvements. The first phase of extensive reconstruction would be expected to begin in August and would cost about $3.1 million, according to McCoy, who said expansion will be aided by the $2.2 million grant from the city.

The phase would be wrapped up by the first quarter of next year.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Councilman Cedric Crear, whose Ward 5 district encompasses the museum and its planned expansion.

Crear said Tuesday that the musuem expansion is perfect for his district, which he calls the “cultural epicenter of the city.” But the Reed Whipple building’s three-year vacancy contradicts that reputation.

“If you look at the building and you look at what’s taken place, there’s no doubt about it that blight creates more blight,” he said, explaining the proposed nominal rent.

Approval will usher in the the era of “Neon 2020,” with the Reed Whipple building as the centerpiece.

Cultural center’s new life

In the cultural center, the museum would add 32,000 square feet to its operations, essentially doubling its footprint on the boulevard, according to McCoy.

The proposed deal solves two problems for the museum: The center’s 8,000-square-foot theater will provide the indoor exhibit space “we’ve been lacking,” McCoy said, and the third boneyard will alleviate congestion at its existing site, where it’s “just full to the brim” with more than 200 signs, making it tough to add more.

To further ease overcrowding, McCoy said, 30-foot grids are planned for the museum’s existing main boneyard, first on the north side then along the east, to allow certain neon signs to be displayed on elevated platforms because outward growth is restricted.

McCoy said the museum’s presence on both sides of the street would not only enhance the neighborhood but also signal a big development for the so-called cultural corridor, which includes the nearby Natural History Museum and Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort.

“A year from now, this is going to look like a whole different Las Vegas Boulevard,” he said.

Crear: Building is ‘too historical … not to be repurposed’

The building opened in 1963 as a church run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was sold to Las Vegas in 1970 and used as a temporary City Hall for two years. Over four-plus decades, it served as a space for arts and culture.

But the center’s recent history has been tenuous. By 2011, the city recommended its closure, pointing to budget woes. When a youth theater troupe departed that summer after 30 years, it sat vacant until the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company was ushered in the next year.

Then, in 2014, a $45 million renovation plan was upended by the theater company’s move to the Town Square area.

Over time, there have been efforts to preserve the building, located at 821 Las Vegas Blvd. North, and designate it as an historical landmark. In an August 2018 proposal for historical preservation from the UNLV Downtown Design Center to the city, proponents detailed break-ins and the threat of losing the building to fire.

Crear said the building is “too historical … not to be repurposed,” recalling days he spent as a child watching shows there. In the Neon Museum, he sees an appropriate tenant and even better neighbors “that have shown a good history of providing a top-flight product.”

By the end of June, McCoy estimates, the museum will have had 250,000 visitors during the fiscal year, close to 90 percent of whom are tourists. Of those, three-quarters stay on the Strip.

“We’re bringing bodies, eyeballs and dollars downtown,” he said.

Plus, most of its current operations sit on city-owned property on long-term ground leases, he added.

And the museum’s visitor center, housed in the former La Concha Motel, was similar to the Reed Whipple building in architecture and age, so museum leaders are “quite confident we can take care of this new investment.”

The Neon Museum leases space on the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s property on Bonanza Road.

A previous version of this story had a headline with the wrong location of the Neon Museum. It is located on Las Vegas Boulevard North.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

Lease Agreement for the Reed Whipple Cultural Center by Las Vegas Review-Journal on Scribd

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