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Is Neonopolis coming back to life?

<p>Rohit Joshi, owner of Neonopolis MARTIN S. FUENTES/LAS VEGAS REVIEW JOURNAL</p>


The executive offices of Neonopolis sit on the second level, next to the art facility. It used to be a quiet space, as art places are not known for their noise. But these days, it is positively cacophonous — filled with the sounds of jackhammers, power saws, work boots and nail guns.

Concussions shake the lighting fixtures. Shadows jump and shudder. And Rohit Joshi couldn’t be happier.

The owner of the troubled complex is enjoying something of a victory lap. Neonopolis is approaching 60 percent occupancy more than a decade after it opened and just three years after business got so bad that Joshi couldn’t pay the air-conditioning bill. Restaurants have gobbled up the first-floor spaces on Fremont Street. Heart Attack Grill opened in October 2011, followed by Mediterranean Café and Luna Rossa Ristorante.

A flagship Denny’s is slated to open later this year. Construction teams are working around the clock on the bones of the diner, a neon-and-booze infused version of the original that will also feature a wedding chapel.

Denny’s is one of five businesses scheduled to open in late 2012 and early 2013. All that banging above Joshi’s office is coming from Krave, a GLBT-friendly super-club that’s moving from the Strip to the third floor of Neonopolis. A tattoo parlor is moving in, along with a sports memorabilia shop and a microbrewery. Bit by bit, businesses large and small are flicking on the lights in a building that was all but declared dead in 2009 and 2010.

“For six years, I’ve been sitting in this office, suffering, losing money,” Joshi said. “Some of the biggest companies in the world have come in here and walked right out the door. The problem was not Joshi. It was not Neonopolis. It was downtown.”

Joshi bought Neonopolis in 2006 for $25 million, pennies on the proverbial dollar for a $100 million project that was partially underwritten by the city. Major tenants had already fled, and it was obvious that the original idea — shopping mall and cineplex — didn’t fit in downtown Vegas.

As it turns out, downtown didn’t need its own version of the Fashion Show Mall, because the tourists on Fremont Street don’t come to shop. And the suburbs already had plenty of movie theaters and bowling alleys, like the first two major tenants.

When Joshi bought the property in 2006, he hoped to redevelop it as a hotel and casino. That fell through, as did Pokerdome, a televised poker studio. Then the recession hit, and Jillian’s, one of the anchor tenants, closed. It happened just as Joshi began to get a feel for the property. A few projects flitted in and out. In 2009, Joshi announced that the Star Trek Experience was moving in. But it didn’t happen. Then he got into that dispute with the air-conditioning company and turned Neonopolis into a downtown joke. Although he endured a lot of bad publicity at the time, Joshi said it was all part of his master plan.

“When the economy went down, we decided to basically close down the project,” Joshi said. “The other guys who were still building during that time, they all went into bankruptcy. But who is still standing on his feet? Joshi is.”

He began brokering deals with Denny’s and Heart Attack Grill during the darkest days of the recession, worked with the city to pay his back taxes and got the air-conditioning up and running. Then, in 2011, the economic gloom began to lift.

Make no mistake, Joshi may have made some good decisions, but he’s also enjoyed some ridiculous luck. One of the first tenants in the “new” Neonopolis was Toy Shack, which set up shop in July 2011. Joshi had already determined that retail didn’t work in Neonopolis, but Toy Shack attracts 600 to 1,000 shoppers every day. On a recent Friday afternoon, a tour group made the rounds, shuffling through aisles stocked with toy cars and action figures. Toy Shack works because it’s not just a toy shop — it’s got star power. Owner Johnny Jimenez appears regularly on Pawn Stars.

“We basically moved into an empty building,” Jimenez said. “We had really big doubts. But it worked out well.”

Although Tony Hsieh is an investor in the Heart Attack Grill, Neonopolis may not figure prominently in his plans to remake downtown.

“Downtown is certainly improved when a formerly vacant space in Neonopolis is filled with a new dining, retail or nightlife business,” Kim Schaeffer of The Downtown Project told CityLife in an e-mail. “However, the focus of Neonopolis is serving tourists, who are not the focus of our efforts as we help to revitalize downtown.”

The key, Joshi said, is to fill Neonopolis with one-of-a-kind businesses, like low-concept burger joints and celebrity toy shops. The third floor will feature Krave and Drink and Drag. And Joshi would like to fill the second level with fine dining and museums.

Things haven’t totally turned around. Joshi is still shackled to a sluggish economy and an architectural monstrosity — a three-story structure built like a bank vault. But the building’s shortcomings pale in comparison to its one obvious advantage: location.

He put aside his concerns about the building’s structure and just concentrated on filling it with tenants. A simple trifecta of food, booze and entertainment seems to be working. New developments in downtown haven’t hurt either. When Zappos moves into the old city hall, Joshi expects even more business.

“Joshi is all about making money,” he said. “Tony Hsieh is all about community. You need both in downtown Las Vegas.”