That’s how Atomic bartender Jeff Grindley sees downtown Las Vegas and its recent cluster of bar-restaurant closings from the Fremont Street corridor to the Arts District.
The popular trio each had their niches, followings and very different owners.
Insert Coin(s) at 512 Fremont St. drew video gamers and was a pioneer in the rebirth of Fremont East; Bar+Bistro at 107 E. Charleston Blvd. provided a hangout for artists and visitors at The Arts Factory in the Arts District; and Downtown Project rebuilt the Bunkhouse at 124 S. 11th St. into a new-and-improved music venue only a year ago, a half-block north of East Fremont Street.
Downtown Project, Tony Hsieh’s $350 million initiative to redevelop the downtown core, was the developer of only one of the three — Bunkhouse. Christopher LaPorte opened Insert Coin(s), while Arts Factory owner Wes Myles owned Bar+Bistro.
Grindley, hanging music posters at The Beat coffeehouse in downtown this week, said the three closings show the struggles of a downtown trying to create an economic identity apart from Las Vegas’ economic bread and butter of gambling and the Strip.
“Las Vegas is a really young city where it’s trying to create an entertainment district for locals. It’s a different business model,” Grindley said this week.
“It’s an evolution,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
The Bunkhouse’s closure came as the biggest jolt because it was the youngest of the three by several years. Last year, Downtown Project poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into reducing the old dive to its shell, then rebuilding it with top-of-the-line audio and music equipment.
Huntridge resident Melissa Clary was surprised, but not shocked by the closings, and said each business had issues in a competitive downtown bar scene.
“As a downtowner, I have frequented each of these venues before and found all three to be lacking in various keys to business success in the competitive bar scene that downtown now offers,” said Clary, president of the Huntridge Neighborhood Association. Her comments are her own and do not represent the sentiments of the Huntridge organization.
“Each of these venues seemed to offer a fairly decent niche, but they truly became complacent, started straying from their core demographic, had terrible customer service or quality of experience, or had high operational costs with no real return. You do that enough and business takes a hit,” she said.
LaPorte said he wants to re-open Insert Coin(s), Bar+Bistro is getting replaced by British pub Crown & Anchor, and Downtown Project is talking with a management group to take over the Bunkhouse after the previous manager, Corner Bar Management, opted out.
Tim Etter, owner of Tenaya Creek brewery who is building a new craft beer development on the edge of downtown, said the closings could be due to the growing bar competition on Fremont.
“There is a lot more competition on the East Fremont corridor. If you rewind to five years ago, there really wasn’t a lot of choices down there. Now you have many establishments competing for the same clientele, which is mostly local. The out-of-towners stay under the (Fremont Experience) canopy,” Etter said.
“I think that these closings just represent a bump in the road. The market is already there and growing. In time, there will be enough support for downtown,” Etter said.
Downtown public relations woman Ruth Furman agreed the Bunkhouse closing was the biggest stunner. And she was also surprised by Insert Coin(s) and Bar+Bistro closing their doors.
“Three spots I liked a lot,” Furman said.
Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin said the closings were the result of three different business situations that happened to play out around the same time.
“There are bright spots in our economy, but we are still in a recession,” said Coffin, whose district includes parts of downtown.
“The people who should be concerned are the people who own the businesses. Anyone who owns a small business risks failure. There are circumstances in each of them that are different,” Coffin said. “The odds are against you if you start a new business and you’re not well capitalized,” said Coffin, noting two of his three own businesses have failed.
Clary said the closings should be a warning to other downtown bars.
“This isn’t doom and gloom for downtown,” she said. “It’s a wake-up call to businesses that they need to deliver and stay competitive or risk failure.”