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[Neon Eden]

After years of ridicule, Neonopolis is poised to become a must-visit destination

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From the ashes: Neonopolis is about to become a hub of exciting activity.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Neonopolis, the behemoth mall-ish structure at Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont, has collected a number of inventive descriptions and nicknames. Its own developer, Rohit Joshi, compared it to barracks. A reviewer on Yelp tagged it “Necropolis” (as in, burial grounds). CityLife writer Amy Kingsley inventively compared it to a bank vault.

I’m going with Supermax Fremont because of its likeness to a federal prison, complete with concrete yard for an hour of daily exercise.

Neonopolis was a project that everyone loved to hate. Conservatives saw it as a boondoggle because the city spent $32 million to build a two-story underground parking garage beneath it. People like me hated that it was a massive blight and a waste of valuable urban space.

The air conditioning went out in 2009, which helped drive away the movie theaters, and then its only prospects seemed to be as a location for an apocalyptic movie.

Now, behold the new Neonopolis (NeoNeonopolis?), embracing weirdness and suddenly on the verge of being a vibrant place.

Most important was the decision by Kelly Murphy to leave the Strip and come to Neonopolis, where he’s building Krave Massive, the biggest gay nightclub in the world, in the old movie theater space. When I was there recently, construction crews were jackhammering away the angled floors of the theaters; the resulting spaces are perfect for different themed rooms of a big nightclub.

“Downtown is hip and cool and where we want to be,” Murphy told me. “And when I saw the theater space, and I thought of Downtown, you’ve got to go big.” Indeed, at 84,000 square feet, Krave will be nearly the size of a conventional Walmart, at a fraction of the rent he’d pay on the Strip.

The recent Gay Pride event at Neonopolis, and specifically Drink and Drag, the drag queen bowling alley, was a test run, Murphy said. Though I wasn’t there, Twitter told me it was a crazy party.

It’s hard to overstate how this could transform the Downtown tourist scene. If nothing else, watching the interaction between the clubbing crowd and the folks who like their beer in plastic footballs will be entertaining.

Then there’s Denny’s, which is building a 6,432-square-foot flagship that will feature a wedding chapel and serve alcohol. (What could go wrong?)

In the food realm, Denny’s joins Luna Rossa, an Italian eatery, and Heart Attack Grill, an abomination that you have to admire for its impressive marketing skills. A microbrewery is also on the way.

The retail/museum lineup is just as eccentric. There’s the Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art; the ShoeZeum, which is supposed to feature the largest collection of Nike shoes in the world; and the Toy Shack, “as seen on Pawn Stars.” What they have in common is that they aren’t standard mall fare (more on that in a minute.)

When I talked to Joshi, his face kept lighting up. After years of being the city’s laughingstock, his Neonopolis has arrived.

“I’m so proud of this generation—they’re such fantastic hipsters,” he said. Joshi, 66, has a fascinating life story, having arrived from India to go to college at the University of Akron. He put himself through school playing music and working in a music store before buying the store. Thus began a successful career in business and eventually real estate development. (Myth or reality? This is Vegas—who cares?)

Joshi has talked a big game before—remember when Star Trek: The Experience was going to move Downtown? Maybe this time is different. He says early next year he’ll announce something big, something that will transform Las Vegas. “It will be Americana—America is fast food, fast ladies and fast cars.” Sure, why not?

On its current trajectory, Neonopolis could become like the mega-resorts of old, the thing every tourist from Des Moines just has to see.

And, as everyone shops online and suburban malls go the way of drive-in movie theaters, maybe Neonopolis will become a model for every tattered mall in America—drag queens and gays, shoe museums, art, the happily obese, immigrants, toy collectors and whomever else wants to jump in the trippy pot. Americana indeed.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.
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