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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Sound the alarm—Fremont East could lose its local edge

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Fremont East is starting to attract more tourists. Is that a good thing?
Photo: Leila Navidi

About 9 o’clock Friday night, one of the double-decker buses popular with tourists made its regular stop in the southbound lane of Las Vegas Boulevard at Neonopolis and disgorged its contents.

Instead of walking west toward the canopied Fremont Street Experience, however, the crowd waited at the stoplight to cross the Boulevard and move into Fremont East.

Maybe it was the heat, or the impossibility of walking anywhere without bumping into people, but it reminded me of the scene in Jaws when a ferry opens its hold and summer tourists flood the tiny island.

Except that this is Downtown Las Vegas. And while the redevelopment going on is bound to attract tourists, I had a fleeting worry of it becoming so overrun that the vision of Downtown as the hub of “real” Las Vegas began to fade. Recent news and a continuing lack of typical locals-friendly amenities only strengthened that fear.

Take the news reported in the Las Vegas Sun that Ferguson’s Motel, purchased by Downtown Project, is being redesigned to include three taverns. The old motel is large, so drinking isn’t the only activity in its future; 30 or so smaller retail spaces are also part of the design, and I hear some of those might be fashioned to accommodate artists and galleries.

But the three bars stand out. I’ve counted before, and there are now no fewer than seven bar-only businesses plus four bar-restaurants within a one-block area on Fremont East. Another bar will open in the Inspire building at Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard in October, and the Scullery is coming to the Ogden a block away around the same time. More will open in the Container Park a block to the east. The normal separation requirements that limit the numbers of bars in a given area don’t apply in this neighborhood.

I’m all for bars. My dad owned one of five in a roughly one-block area in the tiny town of about 1,000 where I was raised. There were another four bar-restaurants and two liquor stores. All that libation probably helped maintain the illusory pluck of small-town life. I’m beginning to wonder, though, if the pool of local residents is large enough to support more taverns down here.

For the most part, redevelopment efforts to date include few real moves into residential construction. There’s talk of some private investors doing that, and Downtown Project hasn’t ruled it out either. But without more residents living close to these new taverns, it’s not a huge leap to think they will start seeking tourist dollars. In some ways, that’s what the city always envisioned, with former mayor Oscar Goodman stating more than once that he could see Fremont East turning into a less-humid version of Bourbon Street.

Like an invasive plant, however, tourism creates the very real threat of choking out the natives. A tourism-based ecosystem means you can forget about getting a grocery store Downtown.

Maybe it also means that Downtown will finally start to get noticed by the big boys on the Strip. A colleague wondered recently if all these bars will start stealing customers away from the mega-casinos. At the same time, someone else mentioned that the “other Downtown,” near Main and Charleston, has fewer tourists and smaller crowds.

“That,” he said, “feels like real Las Vegas.”

More Joe Downtown: The fine line between problems and progress

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown; he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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