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15 burning questions about Downtown Las Vegas

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Downtown’s Fremont East Entertainment District
Photo: Steve Marcus

Thanks to entrepreneurs, rapid-fire development and a certain near-billionaire, the heart of the city is changing fast. We know we like all the options for grabbing a pizza or a happy hour drink, but there’s so much we still don’t know about the Valley’s buzziest neighborhood. Here, we answer more than a dozen questions big and small about Downtown. If you have some of your own, send them to backtalk@gmgvegas.com, and we’ll try to get them answered, too.

    • What do we want Downtown to be?

      Take a walk along Fremont Street on a Friday night and you’ll find yourself amid Las Vegas’ distinct brand of off-Strip offbeat: Men in neon thongs pose for photos in the shadow of a 12-story slot machine-cum-zip line, while those waiting to ride it load up on liquid courage via oversized novelty cups of boozy slushies. A block east, the yelps of a punk band compete with the jeers of a dance battle. Head south for a few minutes, and you can roam galleries with the locals or check out the debut of a Strip performer’s side project inside a crowded dive bar.

      It hasn’t always been this way. A decade ago, Downtown was an afterthought of Las Vegas Boulevard, a scattered population of residents and dilapidated storefronts. In recent years, however, the City of Las Vegas has prioritized bringing in bars, nightlife and other activity generators to draw more people to the area. The effort to spawn a growth period has been a smashing success: Downtown lays claim to 136 businesses with liquor licenses—from bars to restaurants to convenience stores—marking a one-third increase over the last five years. By contrast, the number of liquor licenses elsewhere across the city has decreased slightly in the same time period.

      What will the future of Downtown Las Vegas look like?

      But after a booze-soaked adolescence, the moment has come for Downtown to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

      Do we want Downtown to be Bourbon Street or the Gaslamp Quarter? That’s the question Ward 5 Councilman Ricki Barlow asked at a February City Council meeting, referring to New Orleans’ tourist-heavy party corridor and San Diego’s gentrified urban cultural district.

      The city is already embarking on the soul-searching process to answer that question, with officials looking to hire a consultant to create a new Downtown master plan—a visionary document detailing what the community wants the area to look like in the next 10 to 20 years.

      And perhaps we saw a hint of that vision when the City Council voted May 21 to ban any new package liquor stores under the Fremont Street Experience canopy.

      Beyond curbing unsavory behavior, the ban is seen by some as a means of developing Downtown’s tourism appeal beyond the bottom of the bottle. Ward 3 Councilman Bob Coffin says capping the number of new alcohol establishments will make room for the expansion of casino properties along Fremont Street, into more attractive, resort-like properties whose amenities will drive visitors to stay and explore—not just party—Downtown.

      “In order for Fremont Street to survive and grow, it needs to have a little bit of the flavor of destination resorts. Because there are still people who ... could care less about the Strip,” Coffin says. “I’d like to see the people there on the north side of Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard be able to expand over to Ogden and as far as Stewart. There’s no demand right now for that kind of expansion to happen on the other side of the Boulevard, to the east, but I think that’s essential. The city should encourage it and do all it can to help that happen.”

      But as Downtown seeks to bolster and refine its image, the question still remains about which aspects of the area’s burgeoning local community to focus on—that is, how to grow beyond a bar-and-entertainment district into something more holistic. With Downtown laying claim to only about 5 percent of gaming in Clark County, casinos alone won’t be enough to drive growth.

      City officials hope the forthcoming master plan will frame those new growth drivers, which could range from support of the Las Vegas Medical District to an enhanced university presence to ongoing support of civic and cultural amenities, such as the new Modern art museum. Doing so, however, first means continuing to attract businesses to the area, and, perhaps most crucially, more people to live there. Still, shoring up residential development is far from straightforward.

      “Developing in Downtown is different than developing in the suburbs,” says City Economic and Urban Development Director Bill Arent. “You can’t acquire 50- or 100-acre tracts and subdivide it neatly to fit everything in. You’re not starting from scratch. You can’t tackle all of Downtown all at once, you have to do it in steps.”

      While those steps will need to be supported by new incentives and regulations put in place by the city, officials can’t build Downtown by themselves. The shape the area takes will result from the chemistry between its commercial and neighborly faces as they grow in tandem—which is why asking what we want from Downtown is crucial right now, not just within the meeting rooms of City Hall, but throughout Las Vegas as a community. —Andrea Domanick

    • What has VegasTechFund been funding, anyway?

      We know the buzzwords: seed-stage investments, community catalyst, tech incubator. Already VegasTechFund has put $25 million into 80 different companies focused on everything from “all-you-can-fly private air travel” to really well-fitting bras. We asked VTF partner Andy White to point us toward a few of the teams who’ve been particularly successful, and here’s what we learned:

      Rolltech What it’s all about: “Disrupting bowling,” as founder and CEO Rich Belsky puts it. Rolltech is bringing bowling into the digital age with real-time score and stat collection, progress tracking, prizes and, eventually, a worldwide gaming network that would let a bowler in Vegas roll against one in Barcelona with real cash on the line. “Ultimately, the goal is to change the way the world plays, watches and interacts with its favorite sport.”

      Wedgies.com What it’s all about: Social media polls and surveys. “Think Gallup meets Twitter,” says CEO Porter Haney, who adds that Wedgies helped push Toronto mayor Rob Ford to resign through public opinion polls on the Huffington Post. Haney’s big goal? “To power all polling and surveying across the web,” from American Idol to political elections.

      OrderWithMe What it’s all about: Helping small businesses work together to command the buying power and leverage of the big chain stores. CEO and founder Jonathan Jenkins moved his company from China to Las Vegas last August, and says getting feedback and advice from other startups in the local tech scene has been invaluable.

      Moveline What it’s all about: “We started [this company] because the moving industry is old, unsexy, very broken and desperately failing to innovate and serve customers well,” says co-founder Kelly Eidson. The startup is trying to reinvent everyone’s least favorite task through video inventories, “Move Captains” and multiple pricing options from trusted movers. —Sarah Feldberg

    • Fremont East and Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas.

      Fremont East and Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas.

      Are those real shipping containers at Container Park?

      Yes and no. Forty-three of the retail/entertainment complex’s 84 units are actual repurposed shipping containers. But 41 of them are manufactured. These smaller boxes, called “Xtreme Cubes,” are made in town by Xtreme Manufacturing, an arm of Ahern equipment rental company. Their purpose is to allow for different spatial and structural configurations, along with a lower price point for potential business owners.

      “We thought it would be interesting to use a mix of repurposed containers as well as locally manufactured cubes that can also be repurposed in the construction of Container Park,” says a Downtown Project rep. —Mike Prevatt

    • Tony Hsieh

      Where can I run into Tony Hsieh?

      Spend just a little time Downtown—and catch a glimpse of one “Hsiehvior” sticker—and you’ll have a sense of what Zappos CEO/Downtown Project founder/benevolent overlord Tony Hsieh means to his adopted neighborhood. So staging a totally casual (and totally unexpected!) run-in with the king is something of a local must. The question is where. Our sources suggest the Container Park (come for the Hsieh sighting, stay for the Sasapops and drum circles), Zappos clubhouse Gold Spike (where you can challenge him to giant shuffleboard) or anywhere on Fremont Street between Tony’s home at the Ogden and DTP’s Learning Village. And just remember: When you do run into the Hsiehvior, try to play it cool. —SF

    • Huntridge Tavern

      Huntridge Tavern

      What's the cheapest place to grab a drink?

      Scoring low-priced drinks Downtown is no longer the cakewalk it once was. So we asked a handful of dives for their anytime, non-promotional prices—sorry, Nickel F*cking Beer—in the quest to find the cheapest drinking options in the area. This won’t surprise Downtown barflies, but Huntridge Tavern claims the title. It scores in the beer category at $1.75 for draft Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Shock Top and, of course, PBR, and ties with Dino’s for having the least-expensive cocktails, both bars offering $3 wells 24 hours a day. Which means you’re just one smashed piggy bank away from a bender. —MP

    • The dome at Container Park.

      What's in the dome behind the flaming praying mantis at Container Park?

      The Catalyst Dome is the geodesic, occasionally illuminated structure at the Downtown destination’s front entrance. Though a Downtown Project rep says it won’t open until programming is complete, the 45-foot-wide dome will eventually serve as both an entertainment venue and media studio specializing in 360-degree presentations, thanks to the technologies of LA-based Vortex Immersion Media. Which means the dome has the potential to play host to fully enveloping movie screenings, DJ events, art installations, multimedia educational demonstrations, live performances and more. Put another way, imagine a street-level, multi-purpose planetarium. Or an experiential camp at Burning Man. Or a downsized Omnimax Theatre, reincarnated for Downtown. —MP

    • What happened to Vegas StrEATs?

      Jackie Gaughan Plaza is looking quite empty each second Saturday of the month, now that Vegas StrEATs no longer fills the Downtown parkway with food trucks, vendors, street artists, DJs and musicians.

      The monthly Downtown festival, initially a partnership between the Slidin’ Thru food truck and the El Cortez, ended its almost three-year run after the December 2013 installment.

      Patrons line up at food trucks at the October 2011 installment of Vegas StrEATs in Downtown Las Vegas.

      Patrons line up at food trucks at the October 2011 installment of Vegas StrEATs in Downtown Las Vegas.

      “It wasn’t really a big breaking of ways,” says Alex Epstein, executive vice president of El Cortez. “It was running every month for nearly three years, and that takes its toll. It’s a lot to put on an operation of that scope.”

      Alonzo Valencia (also known as DJ Zo), who took over production of the event after its first installment and remained until the last mini-burger was served, agrees.

      “It was just a lot to handle,” says Valencia, who also held down a full-time job and booked DJ gigs while running StrEATs.

      “It was kind of a time to move on ... I felt like the food truck scene wasn’t really what it was two or three years ago when Slidin’ Thru was in its heyday and Fukuburger was going strong.” Valencia also said low attendance toward the end and financial and operational issues factored into the decision to call it quits. Some months, the local DJ says, he would pay for production costs out of his own pocket. “In the end, part of it was monetary; the other part was just dealing with frustrated vendors and just any current problems.”

      Augie, 31, adds some sauce to his specialty hotdog from the Sin City Dog truck at the August 2013 installment of the Vegas StrEATs festival.

      Augie, 31, adds some sauce to his specialty hotdog from the Sin City Dog truck at the August 2013 installment of the Vegas StrEATs festival.

      Valencia says he considers StrEATs a “great experience” overall, and fondly looks back on all the festival accomplished, from booking nationally recognized acts (like Mayer Hawthorne) and vendors (like Johnny Cupcakes), to giving Downtown outsiders a gateway into the flourishing neighborhood.

      “StrEATs kind of ushered in a whole different crowd,” Valencia says.

      Epstein echoes his thoughts. “I think at the end of the day, it just had a really good run, a really strong run. I think we’re really proud of the fact that it was one of the defining events for Downtown.” —Mark Adams

    • Can I live at the Gold Spike?

      Up an elevator, down a narrow hallway, through an orange door and you’re home. A half-“closet” adorns the wall when you walk into the small living space, which is just feet from the premium social space. No, you’re not back in your college dorm room—you’re at the Gold Spike.

      Downtown Project started renting out residential units in the Gold Spike in January, after turning the vintage property’s tired, turquoise-adorned hotel rooms into updated, contemporary living spaces.

      DTP is reserving the residential space exclusively for what it calls “workforce housing,” so only employees of Zappos, Downtown Project and affiliates of Downtown Project like Eat or Coterie are able to sign a lease—that is, if a space is available. All 42 units are currently occupied, and DTP’s Brad Johnson says a wait-list has even been started.

      If employee interest in the units wanes at some point, “we would consider opening up [to the public],” says Johnson, a member of DTP’s operations team. “But at this point we haven’t had any problem with demand.”

      The communal kitchen and lounge at the Gold Spike, which began renting residential units to Zappos, DTP and DTP-affiliated businesses in January.

      The communal kitchen and lounge at the Gold Spike, which began renting residential units to Zappos, DTP and DTP-affiliated businesses in January.

      Units range from 290 to 330 square feet and feature wood floors and attached bathrooms—basically, a swankified version of your typical dorm room. And speaking of university housing, that square footage doesn’t include a kitchen, which is why DTP converted a number of rooms on Gold Spike’s second floor into a communal kitchen, lounge and laundry room. All amenities and utilities (including Internet and cable) are included in rent, which ranges from $525 to $570 per month, according to Johnson.

      While there are more than 100 hotel rooms in the Gold Spike yet to be renovated, Johnson says DTP doesn’t have any plans for additional residential spaces at this time. However, the investment company will be converting the remaining rooms, along with the adjacent Oasis building, into “crash pads” for “invited guests” of DTP.

      “They are for individuals who we bring here to experience Downtown Las Vegas.” Johnson says. “They’re complimentary and they’re used for that purpose only.”

      So, want to live at Las Vegas Boulevard and Ogden? We hear Moveline is hiring … —MA

    • Is the Arts District doing enough to attract artists?

      The story of the Las Vegas Arts District is an echo of those played out in many cities, where artists and gallerists move into a neglected area for the cheap rent and urban locale, the place becomes more inviting, and then investors come calling and artists get priced out.

      In its early days, the Arts District had a couple dozen studios and galleries that featured everything from lowbrow to pop commercial to blue chip art, but not much more to pull suburbanites Downtown. Lack of foot traffic was a common complaint. More shops, a restaurant, maybe a hip bar was the hope. Then First Friday took off and the Arts District became a bit more comfortable to Downtown visitors; that was followed by Fremont East and a sudden interest in Downtown nightlife.

      First Friday attendees view works of art for sale within the Reclaimed Art Suppliez and Community Art Exchange building during First Friday.

      First Friday attendees view works of art for sale within the Reclaimed Art Suppliez and Community Art Exchange building during First Friday.

      But after the welcomed arrival of Bar+Bistro, Artifice and then Velveteen Rabbit comes a wave of concern from those who see more investors eyeing spaces, buying on the still-cheap, moving out tenants and unrolling plans for the next watering hole—aided by the City of Las Vegas’ waiver of $50,000 in licensing fees for tavern/urban lounge establishments in the area.

      Creative types and business owners have complained about the imbalance: Despite the area’s Arts District designation, there are no incentives for artists or galleries. More bars in the area, they argue, result in higher rents and threaten the art element of the Arts District.

      As to whether the neighborhood is—or has been—friendly to artists, it depends who you ask. But artists have definitely been friendly to the neighborhood and have helped make it what it is today. —Kristen Peterson

    • Dogs at American Coney Island

      Dogs at American Coney Island

      What should I eat after the bars?

      It depends where you are and which Downtown bars you’ve been destroying. If you’re on East Fremont, pray you can find the Cheffinis hot dog cart on a nearby corner (opening soon at Container Park) or swiftly make your way to the D, where you can soak it all up with Detroit’s legendary American Coney Island dogs, topped with chili, mustard and chopped onions. Need something spicy to wake up your brain? Le Thai stays open until 2 a.m. on weekends. Prefer an early breakfast? Downtown Grand’s Stewart + Ogden diner offers bacon-stuffed or cinnamon roll waffles from its colorful graveyard menu.

      If you’re closer to the Arts District, cruise toward Las Vegas Boulevard for the ultimate in afterhours drunk munching. Viva Las Arepas is open 24 hours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and these hot, savory, meat- and cheese-filled corn cakes are the ideal de-boozing meal. At around $5 apiece, they simply can’t be beat. —Brock Radke

    • Was it worth it to reopen Huntridge Circle Park?

      As recognizable to Downtown as the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, the Huntridge Circle Park beckons partiers and residents through Maryland Parkway’s woebegone corridor and into the colorful swarm of Fremont East. Sandwiched between beautiful Atomic-Age homes and some of the city’s most downtrodden ones, Huntridge Circle is a lush, green oasis in an otherwise urban neighborhood.

      Two years after a $1.5 million renovation, Huntridge Circle Park closed in 2006 following the violent murder of a homeless man. The park remained closed for five years, before reopening on weekends in 2011 and then reopening fully in November last year. For nearly a decade now, Huntridge residents have been working to reclaim their beloved park. Has the fight to keep Huntridge Circle alive been worth it?

      Secretary and founding member of the Huntridge Foundation Melissa Clary thinks so.

      “It’s a public park, so it received taxpayer funds,” Clary says. “If we would’ve lost that park, there would’ve been quite a gap of recreational space for people.”

      Huntridge Circle Park was shut down in 2006 by the city because of safety issues involving the homeless, but was reopened in 2011.

      In 2012, the Huntridge Foundation and West Huntridge Neighborhood started the ongoing Cinema in the Circle, a monthly movie night encouraging people to visit the park. Sometimes the event welcomes hundreds of attendees. “I was surprised to learn how many people from all four corners of the Valley come—people who work down here and come with their families,” Clary says.

      Of course, the park comes with some baggage, and due to its location, Clary says that’s inevitable. But when it comes to the homeless, “I’d like to challenge people to not be so quick to worry or judge,” Clary says. “Obviously be aware of [your] surroundings, but if someone looks strange or a little disheveled, it doesn’t mean they’re going to cause you harm.”

      For the most part, Clary, who previously worked for the City of Las Vegas in parks planning, says Huntridge Circle runs into the same problems other parks face, and that combatting unwanted activity requires effort and observation from all of the neighborhood’s residents. Some may decide to forego the area, but for many Huntridge families, it’s the only park they can enjoy—and at least they now have that option. —Leslie Ventura

    • Fremont East and Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas.

      Fremont East and Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas.

      Where should I park ... now that my old spots are always taken?

      It’s true, there are more cars around Fremont East these days, but even on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s hardly a catastrophe. There are around 20,000 parking spaces in the Downtown area, according to Brandy Stanley, parking manager for the City of Las Vegas, who says, “It’s there and most of it is empty; the biggest problem now is that it’s harder to find.”

      Even on a busy bar night, it used to be fairly easy spotting an open meter on Sixth or Seventh, between Ogden and Carson. Now, I head a bit farther south, and still usually score parking close by. Stanley suggests the Neonopolis garage off Fourth Street, free for the first hour and $1 per hour after that, with a $5 max. The Llama lot, at Ninth and Fremont, is another solid option ($1 per hour, $5 max), as is the garage behind the El Cortez on Seventh ($5 flat rate), though that one can fill up fast on weekends. If all else fails, you can always try valeting at the El Cortez.

      Whatever you do, Stanley has one last piece of advice: “Don’t park in a dirt lot.” Unless you want to get towed. —Spencer Patterson

    • Can I live Downtown?

      Among the many questions swirling around Downtown’s revival, one of those looming largest is housing: Is there enough? Is it too expensive? And most basically: Can I live there?

      The answers are complicated: Yes (but maybe not where or how you want it); no (if you’re willing to venture away from the hip and happening core); and it depends—on your priorities, bank account and high-rise expectations. The bottom line: There’s plenty of housing around Downtown Las Vegas, but precious little of it fulfills the granite-countered, loft-living, still-somewhat-affordable dreams of many aspiring urbanites.

      $80,000 Median price of homes sold in ZIP code 89101, which covers roughly the area from Charleston Boulevard to Owens Avenue, between Main Street and Pecos Road, including the heart of Downtown Las Vegas. (Source: Zillow.com)

      The bedroom of a condo for sale inside The Ogden high rise tower in downtown Las Vegas seen Friday, November 18, 2011.

      $561 Average apartment rent in ZIP code 89101, which includes 6,492 total units and has an 11.1 average vacancy rate, according to UNLV’s Lied Institute Report on Apartment Market Trends.

      3 Rental units currently available at the Ogden building overlooking Fremont East, where one-, two- and three-bedroom rentals run $1,650-$2,800 and you can call Tony Hsieh your neighbor.

      $119,8000 Median home value in ZIP code 89104, which includes the Huntridge neighborhood and John S. Park Historic District. That’s up about 36 percent over the past year, and home values are expected to rise 14 percent in the next year, according to Zillow.com.

      $1,000-$2,410 Rental costs for the 341 units at Juhl, which range from studio apartments to two-bedroom, two-story townhomes.

      $765 Average monthly rent across the Las Vegas Valley. —SF

    • What does the other Downtown think about the new scene?

      If there’s an equator between old and new Downtown, the vintage building at Seventh and Carson is it. Across from the Container Park, it draws an invisible line in a landscape of sleepy or boarded-up blocks just outside the main redevelopment zone. The building’s own personality is split between the Park Avenue apartment complex and Eat, a hip restaurant stampeded by stylish Downtowners. Joe Sennett has never eaten there.

      “I’ve heard the food is fantastic, but it’s pricey,” says Sennett, a Park Avenue resident for the past four years. Before that, the 59-year-old was living in a veteran’s home in his native Boston, bouncing back from divorce, tired of the cold winters and figuring there was more to life. He looked at rents around the country and decided on Las Vegas, betting on Downtown with only $2,000 to his name. “Being in a wheelchair, everything was convenient. It’s easy for me to get around. I’m mostly a day person, and it’s quiet during the day; it’s nice; it’s safe. The few times I go out at night it’s like a whole different world. I don’t really get into that. It’s crazy.”

      Downtown resident Joe Sennett, 59, originally from Boston, is shown in the courtyard of the Park Avenue Apartments.

      Sennett says this with affection. He laughs about the flame-throwing praying mantis scaring the hell out of him and says the vibrancy of the developing scene is great for young people like his 20-something son and daughter. “I’m all for revitalization. … But I have a feeling in a few years this is gonna be high-rent. I understand progress. Why not? Take eyesore places; make them better. You’re probably gonna force out people like me, though,” he says. “There used to be the mom-and-pop stuff, the little variety stores—they’re not there anymore.”

      Sennett doesn’t sound bitter; he figures most people aren’t inconvenienced. He treks to the 99 Cent Store for its “potluck” of goods. He hits Fremont every day for a McDonald’s coffee and a spin of the free-play wheel at Binion’s. Sometimes he treats himself to a buffet at the El Cortez or Main Street Station. He has explored Container Park, but crowds and narrow ramps have thwarted two attempts to taste Big Ern’s. He calls himself boring, says he’s mostly a homebody after so many years in Boston bars playing guitar in a cover band called Classic Trax. If he were younger, he could see himself making music on Fremont East.

      Just approved for state housing, Sennett will soon leave his tidy complex. He’ll miss the feel of Downtown, the energy and genuine people. When asked about the impact made by Tony Hsieh since he’s been in the neighborhood, Sennett asks: “Who’s he?” He’d always heard Zappos was “responsible for all this.”

      Sennett says some people don’t like seeing the little stores pushed out, “but I understand. I mean, it needs it. I don’t think you’re gonna recognize [Downtown] in a couple years. … But it’s a good thing. Overall, I get it.” —Erin Ryan

    • What's coming next?

      Talk to locals about the development of Downtown Las Vegas, and you’ll often hear them marvel, “Just imagine what it’s going to look like in 10 years.” Easier said than done. The pace of change has been at an all-out sprint, with new murals, bars and businesses seeming to pop up every week. Imagining Downtown in 10 months, let alone 10 years, is tough, but we’re always up for dusting off the old crystal ball. Here are a few attractions expected Downtown in the next six months:

      The Carson Hotel on Sixth Street in Downtown Las Vegas.

      Hotel, motel, mixed-use development? Built in 1955, the 65-room John E. Carson Hotel is already starting its second life as a destination for s’mores doughnuts and sweet tattoos. Joining O Face Doughnuts and Black Spade Tattoo will be Grass Roots juice bar, a florist, Kerry Simon’s Carson Kitchen, a yoga studio and Bocho, a sushi (finally!) and karaoke (double finally!) joint from Le Thai’s Dan Coughlin. The hotel rooms are being converted into micro-offices.

      Just down the block, on the northwest corner of Carson and Seventh streets, three more restaurants are on the way in the building that houses A Cut Above barber shop: Cajun concept Zydeco Po-Boys, vegetarian eatery Vegenation and Glutton, a new gastropub.

      And if there’s ever a night you don’t feel like dining out, after much anticipation (and much complaining), Downtown is finally getting a grocery store. The Market is slated to open at 611 Fremont St. in late summer or early fall, with grab-and-go food, craft beer and wine, produce, and organic products.

      Finally, the former home of Azul Tequila is relaunching in June as Place on 7th, an indoor/outdoor events space with capacity for 250 inside and 750 outside. And with so many restaurants popping up within strolling distance, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone to cater your next Downtown bash. —SF

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