Downtown Las Vegas’ Best Days Ahead

For more than 60 years, the iconic Vegas Vic has been standing guard over Las Vegas’ downtown area, watching as attempts to boost downtown’s visitorship have had varying levels of success and failure.

While Glitter Gulch was once the gaming capital’s shining star, the Las Vegas Strip took over that claim in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as new megaresorts captured headlines and the lion’s share of tourist traffic. The $70 million Fremont Street Experience, which closed a 5-block stretch of the street to traffic in 1994 and added its overhead light show in 1995, helped downtown casinos survive and in many cases thrive, bringing in tourists drawn to the impressive light show. But another venture, Neonopolis, which opened in 2002 amid great hopes that it would spur downtown redevelopment, never really delivered on its initial promise.

Today, however, there is much hope for downtown Las Vegas, amid Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s investments, most notably the relocation of the online retailer’s headquarters downtown. In addition, Hsieh and others have invested significantly ($350 million) to aid in the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas.

Casino operators are making convincing investments in their properties. For example, the Downtown Grand opened last month, replacing the timeworn Lady Luck casino-hotel, while last year’s rebranding of Fitzgerald’s into the D created a more modern, hip presence. Count the Golden Nugget and the Plaza among the properties that are offering more than ever in order to bring people downtown. The Fremont East Entertainment District (located east of Fremont Street Experience) and The Mob Museum also have added more reasons to head downtown. Las Vegas’ oldest hotel, the Golden Gate, built in 1906, has reinvented itself as a historic boutique hotel, and even Neonopolis is showing more signs of success as the headquarters of Telemundo and several new tenants. Adding to the area’s vibrancy are the nearby Las Vegas Premium Outlets and the stunning Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Recent data suggests these investments are working. A 2012 Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority visitor profile showed some 36 percent of visitors who come to Las Vegas make their way downtown—a marked increase from the previous year. Union Gaming Group (UGG) noted that this revitalized interest in the area has flown somewhat under Wall Street’s radar.

“While Downtown may still be thought of as a place for $0.99 shrimp cocktails and cheap frozen margaritas, a walk down Fremont Street East reveals a far different story,” UGG noted in a June report. “On a typical Friday night, you will observe lines at popular bars that rival those of Strip nightlife options. On the restaurant front, the market is also undergoing a renaissance,” including the recently opened La Comida by noted restaurateur Michael Morton.

Downtown has seen “an influx of a new, younger demographic who come for the nightlife and may not necessarily gamble,” UGG added. “The casino properties have a balancing act of appealing to this group, but not alienating its core customer base, which is comprised of generally older slot players.”

Most recently, the Las Vegas City Council approved development plans to transform the old downtown bus transit center into a multilevel shopping and dining complex.

Downtown casinos are more gaming-centered than Strip properties, but they are adding amenities and sprucing up. And there is a vibe that can’t be denied. For many, being able to stroll the casino-lined pedestrian mall, replete with its overhead light show and zip-line, is enjoyable, and downtown Las Vegas feels much more like the real Las Vegas experience than the megaresorts a few miles south.

Don’t bet against downtown Las Vegas. Take the underdog. After all, downtown endures, a survivor standing tall, much like Vegas Vic.

Peter Mead,
Casino Enterprise Management