Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Style vs. Value in Downtown's Renaissance

I've always enjoyed downtown Las Vegas, which is essentially the REAL Las Vegas, Las Vegas proper so to speak.

If you are on the strip chances are you are gambling in Paradise not Las Vegas. Now that doesn't sound bad, but be aware that you are more than likely outside of Sin City's limits.

A very brief history of modern Las Vegas would go something like this -- in 1905 at the corner of Main and Fremont Street a town is born. Liquor, gambling, and prostitution as well as a rail line fuel the growth. As the vices are outlawed a boomtown is stunted, but bides its time. Hallelujah! in 1931 gambling and booze are legal again and Fremont Street sizzles with excitement. In 1941 El Rancho Vegas, the first strip resort opens on the outskirts in the desert, the Last Frontier, and the Flamingo soon follow and the Strip (now capitalized and capitalizing) never look back. Downtown Las Vegas through the years begins to lose its lustre and is eventually outshined by the Strip.

For the past ten years of so, or since the erection of the "Fremont Street Experience" Las Vegas has struggled to thrive and re-invent itself.

One thing Las Vegas proper has always been known for is its value, i.e. if you don't mind walking around homeless people, drug addicts, and general down-and-outers, you might enjoy a cheap hotel, meal, beer, and just slightly better odds on your slot play.

And then there is the classic neon. Vegas Vic and his flirtatious cohort Vegas Vicky still greet you under the canopy of the "experience." The Neon museum has refurbished the Hacienda Vaquero and his gleaming Palomino, as well as many smaller classic neon signs and they are there to dazzle you with their vintage appeal.

Mayor Oscar Goodman's has unabashedly been Downtown's biggest supporter, and has ignored all criticism as he boldly forges ahead to make Las Vegas' rebirth as a great international city come to fruition.

To all the critics, I have to side with martini swilling Oscar and say "It's working."

There are definite signs of progress. The new Fremont Street East project, chock full of new vintage styled neon and pedestrian friendly sidewalks so far looks like a success. Businesses are started to pop up in the shadow of gleaming condominium towers. Dives such as the Gold Spike, and the Travel Inn have been sold and will be transformed into boutique hotels. Oscar's pet project the "Mob Museum" is hummin right along.

There is even hope for the albatross that is "Neonopolis" a spectacular failure by all accounts. Word is Telemundo might move its local studios and offices there.

The empty "Lady Luck" has also sold, and here is where the controversy of style vs. value in Downtown Las Vegas will really draw an audience.

I never stayed at the Lady Luck, and can't even remember crossing its threshold - mostly due to its location on third street, down a dark scary street beyond the canopy of safety. Even a couple of jr. executive types who worked there called it "a dive" when I asked them about it mid-beer one evening. But the Lady Luck had its supporters, and online it really didn't look half bad. In 2006 it shut down for renovations that never happened, and Oscar has famously referred to it as "that carcass outside my door," referring to his post across the street in city hall.

That is all about to change, as the new owners are rushing to draw up new plans for the aging lady, and even looking at buying up neighboring properties. The land rush in Downtown appears to be in full swing.

But what will the Lady Luck look like, and will Downtown's new urbanization destroy the blue-collar bastion that it has become?

The subject was covered today in the Review Journal. I will some it up with the best quote of the story -
"All of us exist because of the casinos," said Nitura, whose daughter operates the beef-jerky store that also sells Hawaiian delicacies. "The faster we learn that, the better. Downtown should be honky-tonk. "The electricians, the carpenters, those are the kind of guys we want to have downtown. The other guys can go up to the Strip," he added.

As the construction continues, plenty of workers will be downtown. If they keep coming after their work is done to rub shoulders with doctors and lawyers, and hipsters will remain to be seen.

The RJ who has delighted in its Oscar attacks are going to have to eat at least some of their words. The plan is working, literally.

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, from the sleek yachts to the dingy dinghies.

As long as Binion's (recently sold to Terry Caudhill who owns the Four Queens) continues to send me free play, and hang on to at least some of its fabled frontier charm, I think the Honky Tonk will be alive and well in downtown.

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