Years back I interviewed Bob O’Neill, an original owner of what would become the Downtown Grand complex. We toured his properties—Triple George, Hogs & Heifers, Celebrity—and we while visited the latter, he got a call from a friend he described as “a legit whale.” We agreed to meet him at the recently opened Beauty Bar, which failed to impress him. Oblivious to the attractive women, party vibe and booming indie rock, the whale nursed his beer, checked his watch and looked painfully bored.
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, George Maloof Jr. walked into the joint. Maloof, a majority owner of the Palms in those days, woke the whale from his torpor. He got on his flip phone and made an urgent call: “I was gonna bail, but Maloof just showed up.”
Today, Fremont East is built out with specialty bars and restaurants. Whales swim through its environs as a matter of routine. But a curious thing happened between 2007 and now: Even as Tony Hsieh and other entrepreneurs seemingly tried to remake Fremont East as something aimed squarely at locals—offering family-friendly entertainment and retail, building schools and housing and even eschewing gaming itself—old-school Vegas showed up.
Consider what’s happening in the tourist corridor. Derek and Greg Stevens, owners of the D and the Golden Gate, are taking down a block of Fremont to build Downtown’s first whole-cloth new hotel and casino in decades. (And they’re also doing a major expansion of the Golden Gate, set to open later this month.) The California-based CIM Group is planning additions to the Downtown Grand that include a new hotel tower, more meeting space and lots of dining and retail. And stand-alone taverns and restaurants are in the works for various storefronts along the Fremont Street Experience.
It’s tempting to think of this as the pendulum swinging the other way, but I have another suggestion: Fremont East was never different from regular Fremont. It was never meant exclusively for locals; we only had those bars to ourselves because tourists wouldn’t walk down that far. But tourist Fremont is slowly reclaiming Fremont East and running with what made it work, and it’s altogether right that it does so. Turns out Fremont East was whale bait all along.