Many people think Fremont Street, like so many streets in the valley, is flat. It’s not. It’s a long, slow grade that gradually descends from the heart of downtown to Five Points, where Fremont turns into Boulder Highway, and intersects with Charleston and Eastern avenues.
You don’t feel the grade unless you’re walking, unless you are one of those, perhaps, who lives in the multitude of weekly and monthly rentals down east of Ninth Street, outside of the Fremont East district. But if you’re walking Fremont Street, you might want to start at Las Vegas Boulevard.
Since they put a roof over Glitter Gulch in the mid-’90s, Fremont Street proper starts at Las Vegas Boulevard, which has become the de-facto DMZ separating the hordes of visitors looking at the roof from the skinny-jean-wearing hipsters spending their disposable dollars at the new bars and bistros like the Vanguard, the Griffin, Insert Coins, the Beauty Bar, The Beat coffeehouse and Le Thai, and the even newer joints like Radio City Pizza, the Commonwealth, the Fremont Country Club and the BBB.
Those nightclubs and restaurants represent an amazing concentration of investment, a rising tide of financing, much of it thanks to Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, an effort to pour $350 million into the urban core. Hsieh is using his Internet retailer Zappos.com as a base to revitalize the center of downtown, partnering with the Resort Gaming Group and the city to provide start-up funding for dozens of new brick-and-mortar businesses.
At the corner of Sixth Street, the smell of lunch coming from Le Thai competes with the milder aroma of burnt coffee coming from The Beat. If this is the smell of success, it smells good, better than many downtown streets on this sunny spring afternoon.
When investment and jobs come into a neighborhood, the neighborhood will never be the same. People know this, but the changing character of Fremont East District is squeezing some long-time retailers right out of the barrio.
Steve Yono has eight employees at the Family Market and Deli at Seventh and Fremont, across from the El Cortez. He’s been there for 15 years, riding economic downturns, huge construction projects, infestations of drug dealers and, finally, a much-hoped for economic resurgence.
Now he has a month to move out.
“We’d love to stay down here,” he says. “Change is good. What we’re complaining about — if you’re not part of the culture, then you’re not welcome.”
Yono says the axe fell late last year. His landlords were renegotiating a long-term lease. First the discussion was for five years, then three years. Then he learned that the entire building would be leased to the Resort Gaming Group. The news, he says, was heartbreaking.
“We weathered every storm that was here,” Yono says. “We believed in downtown. … We’ve seen it all here, and then just as things were turning around, we were asked to leave.”
Yono is moving his store about five blocks west, but he says he had to contend with the same investors, the Retail Gaming Group, even at the new location.
Next door to the Family Market, Mamita’s outdoor sign still says “Wow! Mexican-Cuban Restaurant,” but you won’t get a wet burrito or Cubano sandwich there. After 22 years, Mamita’s closed for good last year.
The Southern Nevada Health District, citing numerous problems including refrigeration units that didn’t work, shuttered the restaurant. Maria Calvino and her husband, Jose, kept the place open during those years of downtown’s decline and rebirth.
Maria Calvino says she never had many problems with the health department or city licensing before the redevelopment boom.
“The place was very clean,” she says. But unlike neighboring bars and restaurants, she just didn’t have thousands of dollars to invest in new equipment at the leased site. She says new competition from a Mexican-themed restaurant under construction a block away, a product of high-profile restaurant and nightclub operators Jenna and Michael Morton, as well as food trucks serving the weekend crowds, threatened her bottom line.
Calvino is not crying about the loss of her restaurant, though.
“I was ready to be squeezed out,” she says, describing her lot as “retired and relaxed.” Calvino says the landlord plans to convert the entire building into an upscale deli to serve the office and retail park under construction just east of her old restaurant, a site destined to be the new Container Park.
Some of Fremont’s other old restaurants face similar competitive pressures. Kabob Corner versus Fremont Mediterranean Café. Uncle Joe’s Pizza versus Radio City Pizza, across the street. Shiny, new restaurants are replacing the family-owned outfits that used to dominate the blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard.
East of the Container Park, east of the El Cortez, the investment boom appears to wither, but even here, change is coming. Last week, Downtown Project announced it will buy the 43-year-old Western Hotel on the block between Eighth and Ninth streets. The Western has been closed since January 2012. Nearby, there are many other properties that could use similar cash infusions.
At Ninth and Fremont, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Rebekahs Lodge faces east to a large empty lot surrounded by wire mesh fencing. The Ambassador East sign on Fremont stands tall, but it is a silent sentinel for a hotel that no longer exists. Across the street, what might be the easternmost bastion of the hip Fremont East District stands guard: Atomic Liquors is a relic of an older, tougher Las Vegas, and its funky signage and historic character have many downtowners eager to see its oft-delayed reopening.
Downtown Project spokesperson Kim Schaefer says that while some retailers feel squeezed by new investment and development, ultimately the city, residents in and out of downtown and surviving merchants will benefit from the changes.
“Of course, we’re concerned about our neighbors and the neighborhood itself,” she says. “Downtown is an evolving story and has been evolving for several years. It is our hope that our involvement will over the long term help everyone in the community as well as the new businesses.”
The Downtown Project is a for-profit company that works closely with the Resort Gaming Group to identify and develop downtown properties. With the purchase of the Western, the companies are moving steadily east. How far east? Schaefer says she doesn’t know.
“We don’t have a master plan of where were going, except that we’re focused in the Fremont Street area right now,” she says. “It’s really a question of what is available and where things will work out.”
She calls the process of finding and supporting entrepreneurs in the Fremont area an “organic,” “evolving process over a period of time.”
“Las Vegas has been really decimated over the last few years,” Schaefer says, referring to the economic downturn that hit the city hard. “So many people have really suffered. One of our goals is to diversify our city.
“It’s not always easy and there are growing pains.”
The city of Las Vegas is supporting downtown investment, particularly but not limited to the Downtown Project and Resort Gaming Group. The idea, explains Las Vegas Economic Development Director Bill Arent, is to help fund the facelifts of buildings downtown and in the Arts District — “rather than a stick, it’s a carrot approach.”
Arent is speaking in his new offices in the sparkling — literally sparkling, with an outside LED light display — new City Hall, on the west side of downtown, on Main Street. If you want to see what changes will affect Main Street in the years ahead, look at the Fremont East and Arts Districts today.
So far, the city has provided about $3.7 million in Visual Improvement Program funding for outside signage and exterior work to more than 90 businesses and a few nonprofits. In this fiscal year, the city also is providing, for the first time, dollars for interior renovations, granting $230,000 total to five places. The maximum single grant is $50,000, so the city’s buy-in is usually much smaller than the total investment needed to upgrade a building or business. And it takes money to get money: Investors have to match the city’s contribution dollar-for-dollar, and have to spend their nut before they get the city’s money.
Arent says the drive is working, with Southern Nevada companies moving into the urban core. Downtown office vacancies are under 10 percent, compared to 25 percent valley-wide.
The nexus of a new entertainment district is attracting other kinds of investment, including high-tech companies like Take-Two Interactive, makers of the Grand Theft Auto video game, which is due to move into a space at Carson and Third next month.
“There’s a lot of interest among companies with a lot of young workers,” Arent says. “They want to be in Las Vegas.”
And he expects, one might say hopes, that a third trend will grow, with larger companies, especially health-care companies, moving into downtown or nearby. Arent says the biggest hurdle — the resistance to coming downtown because of negative stereotypes about the area — has been overcome. Surveys of local residents and businesses find the changes to be “overwhelmingly positive,” he says.
There remain challenges. There is still low-income housing in and near downtown, and some expensive new housing in high rises, but not a lot of “in between,” moderately priced housing, Arent says.
The Great Recession-inspired real estate correction has made rents more affordable downtown, but he still believes it is difficult for many people to live here. He quotes Tony Hsieh, saying the investor has promised to help bring 5,000 permanent residents — “upwardly mobile people,” Arent says — within five years.
“That would be a game-changer,” he adds. “The housing market generally is a concern, but also an opportunity.”
Move east on the long, slow slope from downtown, and you can just about see where the rising tide ends. It might be at the distinctive Fergusons Downtown Motel at 11th Street. The Fergusons’ round central cupola and the distinctive brick style, covered in bright white paint with blue trim, marks it as a mid-century Las Vegas native.
Fergusons — closed, surrounded by wire fencing — is one of a string of hotel-motels that provide cheap weekly and monthly rentals along Fremont. The hotels, some open, some shuttered, provide varying degrees of eye-popping architectural details, signage and dilapidation.
There’s the Alicio, the Gables, the Valley and the Travelers, with its filled-in swimming pool in the middle of the parking lot, all on the north side of Fremont. On the south side, there is the Las Vegas Hostel, with a prominent sign warning “POOL CLOSED.”
Next door to the Gables — which, as the name suggests, has gables perched above the hotel room doorways — is the Peter Pan, which sports one of the most distinctive signs at this corner of Maryland Avenue and Fremont. The Peter Pan received a $7,500 grant for signage in 2010. Now there’s another sign, one offering the Gables and the Peter Pan for sale, together or separately.
Between 13th and 15th, Siegel Suites, a chain specializing in weekly and monthly rentals, has three buildings, all former hotels.
Walking east, you will see more familiar evidence of the Las Vegas that once was: Another empty lot, surrounded by narrow concrete sidewalks, filled with white sandy dirt and a few lonely weeds.
East of 15th, there’s a surprise: the South Cove Apartments. It’s not the Bellagio, but it’s a functioning, relatively modern property featuring a working pool and gaming. There’s a security guard walking the perimeter.
Travel east, downhill, and you will pass the Rangler Motel and then, at 17th, the Desert Moon Motel, with its “XXX” sign out front and a smaller sign by the office, “No visitors after 10 p.m.” Now we are one mile and a world away from the Fremont East District. Instead of chic nightclubs, we have radiator shops, upholstery joints and used-car lots. The Milan Bakery is closed. Superior Limb and Brace Co. perhaps still offers prosthetics, but “By Appointment Only.” Small groups of men hang around the OctaPharma Plasma storefront, where donors can make up to $50 for selling their plasma, and a few entrepreneurs appear eager to help you spend that new cash. “You lookin’ for something?” one asks, suggestively.
The plasma center is cattycorner from Howard Hollingsworth Elementary, and across the street from yet another large empty lot. More down-and-out motels — the Purple Sage, the Hialeah and then, incongruously, a sign of investment even this far east: new loft-style townhouses on the south side of the street.
The iconic Blue Angel of the now-closed Blue Angel Motel looks down on the east end of Fremont Street, and the now-closed Fresh and Easy market at Eastern Avenue, and the jumble of hotels and commercial properties delineating the end of the historic downtown area and the beginning of Boulder Highway.
You don’t see it, really, if you’re driving. But walking east on Fremont from downtown, you might be forgiven for being dispirited by the sheer weight of poverty that eclipses much of Las Vegas’ signature street. But walk up, literally up, Fremont.
On that walk, you will see the busy families, the school kids at Hollingsworth Elementary, the sporadic signs of revitalization until finally you arrive at the bright shiny new places of the Fremont East District. The higher up the road you go, the more signs of human and financial investment you will see. The question, of course, is who will ultimately benefit from that investment, and how far east it will travel.