Downtown

[On the scene]

Re-experiencing Fremont Street

Downtown is riding the economy better than the Strip. We take a look.

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Photo: Sam Morris

The Fremont Street Experience is crowded on a recent Saturday night. Not so crowded that you can’t get around, but packed enough that you feel like you are at an outdoor party and not just wandering a shopping mall.

This vibe has changed from even a year ago, when panhandlers and bargain-hunters and a terrible odor were the most obvious memories taken from visits to the Experience.

At Binion’s, the wretched old, stained carpet is gone, replaced by new carpet and tile. The cocktail waitresses have new uniforms with festive pink cowboy hats. From Imperial Palace to Tropicana, there are many Strip resorts that the revamped Binion’s can equal for cleanliness, attractive young crowds and an appealing scene.

Of course, Downtown is still Downtown. At Four Queens, ask for the nearest baccarat table—the game of choice on this, the weekend before Chinese New Year—and you are told to try the Golden Nugget. (Binion’s has a single baccarat table, mostly empty of players.) Fremont Street is still where you can play single-deck blackjack, low table limits are easy to find, and there are lots of slots that offer significant paybacks for the informed consumer. Maybe that is why, while the gaming win on the Strip was down by double digits in November, Downtown casinos were only off slightly more than 1 percent. If you are knowledgeable about gambling, Downtown remains the superior choice for most of the games and slots.

At the Fremont Street Experience, 2009 got off to a great start when the latest light show (a Kiss tribute) premiered to a record crowd on New Year’s Eve—more than 30,000, according to a spokesman.

Indeed, the Fremont Street Experience finally appears to be the tourist draw its creators had always hoped it would become. On this Saturday, visitors from Los Angeles to Australia are easy to come across. The updated light show feels more contemporary, if not more technologically sophisticated, than what has been shown in the past. The Queen tribute on the canopy manages to get strangers slapping hands, dancing and singing along.

The other free entertainment has been pumped up, too. There is a smooth-jazz saxophone player. Two stages offer bands. A “cage of death” features motorcycle stunts. In the midst of a down economy, Fremont Street has never been more of an experience.

Not everything is upbeat, of course. Even on a Saturday night, with Fremont Street filled with people, the parking garage for nearby Neonopolis is far emptier than the self-parking garage at any Strip resort. And Neonopolis still resembles a necropolis: empty storefronts, with signs like tombstones marking where former businesses like Jillian’s once existed.

Away from the canopy another scene emerges: a Downtown alternative culture mostly patronized by locals. On this night, Beauty Bar hosts a concert by punk legends The Adolescents. Though Beauty Bar is in the new entertainment district, Fremont East, the club cannot give out fliers or drink tickets to the thousands of tourists a couple of blocks away. According to a Fremont Street Experience spokesperson, “A city ordinance lets us control who gets to solicit under the canopy. We are focused on advertising for member casinos.”

At Hogs & Heifers on Third Street, proprietor Michelle Dell greets her customers by name and with hugs. “We have built our locals audience through unbelievably hard work and guerilla marketing,” she says. But she is irritated by the wasted potential of all the tourists who have no idea her bar is just a few yards away.

“The city sought me out to open here. The city is not doing enough to support the businesses that they encouraged to come here. We need advertising like the Strip gets from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. When people travel they want to see Downtown, because the downtown of a city is always a little edgier, a little hipper and has a better nightlife. And we have done that. Downtown has developed a great street scene for all kinds of people. But Downtown also needs some attention that isn’t about casinos, but about businesses that are off the beaten path.”

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Richard Abowitz

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