Downtown, Baby

Published: April 01, 2006 - Successful Meetings

Meeting groups naturally gravitate to the Strip, feeling
the draw of its towering spires and high-beam electric show the way magnetic north pulls on a compass needle. But beyond the Strip's dazzling display is a wispier light in the desert, a smudge of buildings in the distance. That is the old Las Vegas; in fact, the real Las Vegas—the only part of Clark County that is incorporated under the famous name. Everybody calls it downtown.

Nowadays, few planners consider meeting downtown. "Downtown," says Carling Dinkler III, president, Custom Conventions, Las Vegas, "is where a lot of local and regional meetings take place. Groups from out of town want to stay at the latest, most deluxe properties. That leaves downtown for people who know about it and what it's like."

Good Times

Compared with its glitzy neighbor, downtown has little room inventory or meeting space. But things might have been different, had Steve Wynn held on to the Golden Nugget. Alan Feldman, who worked for Wynn and is now senior vice president of public affairs for MGM MIRAGE (and an amateur historian of all things Vegas), recalls, "Steve operated the Golden Nugget as if it were a Strip hotel. It was really one of the top hotels in town for many, many years." Wynn took over the '50s-era property in the early '70s when it was "just a casino," and built the first 400-room tower, eventually called the North Tower. With the second, 2,300-room South Tower, Wynn added the first substantial meeting space in downtown; in fact, convention and meetings business was a crucial component in Wynn's expansion. "The whole idea," says Feldman, "was to sell rooms to meetings and conventions from Sunday to Thursday in the hotel. It was very convenient—from the main level, you'd go up one floor from the convention level, and the rooms were built above that." The final addition was the Spa Tower, which included spectacular, two-floor, high-roller suites.

But then Wynn changed focus. "We opened the Mirage in '89," Feldman remembers, "Treasure Island in '93, and that's when the Golden Nugget lost momentum, and the whole city began shifting toward the Strip."

New Plan

In the ensuing years, initiatives were employed to energize downtown, the most ambitious being The Fremont Street Experience, a $70-million, five-block-long electric canopy comprising 12 million bulbs for a 550,000-watt light show over a pedestrian mall. The Fremont Street Experience, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this January, is experienced by 17 million visitors per year. Says Feldman, "The Fremont Street Experience did a wonderful job of creating some thunder; in fact, I think that without it, downtown would be substantially worse off. What it didn't do—and it was a notion that some folks had that was just completely unrealistic—was turn downtown around."

Oscar B. Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas since 1993, has from the beginning considered the revitalization of downtown a high priority. "I first decided to run for mayor," says Goodman, "with the intention of devoting much of my efforts towards revitalizing an area that could euphemistically be called 'maturing.' " He started with acres of "brownfield" (formerly industrial) land adjacent to downtown, with an eye toward master-planning a new town center, Union Park, that would join residential towers, mixed-use office/retail space, state-of-the-art medical research facilities, an arts district, and more with existing hotels and casinos. "You can't have a great American city unless you have a solid urban core," says Goodman, "and that is predicated on culture, intellect, and exchange of ideas." He envisions the new plan as "the heart and soul. It will really become the city-within-a-city by the time we're through." Goodman begins to tick off the new projects by area developers: "Sam Cherry Development is topping off his first high-rise project here, a loft project that's very, very ambitious and completely sold out. He's starting a second one, and has another on the drawing board. Allure came in and is building two 40-story towers." There's even talk of a new convention center by World Market Center, a downtown-based home and hospitality furnishings company that hosts the semiannual Las Vegas Market trade show. The Center is currently building a 12-million-square foot campus downtown (to be completed in 2012); a second building will come online in 2007. "World Market would build a convention center in the back of its multimillion-square-foot retail development," says Goodman, "but I'm interested in density—I'm talking about tall buildings." Even so, he adds: "It's exciting, it's like playing Monopoly. We don't see it every day."

Feldman agrees: "I think that downtown is on the verge of a major renaissance. There's investment coming back; the Golden Nugget itself has been sold twice in the last two years, each time for ever-bigger numbers, and is in the midst of a major renovation by the current owners, which is terrific. There's a post office downtown that's one of the very few old buildings that still exist in Las Vegas; it is about to undergo a $20-million renovation into a museum and cultural center. That's a very exciting move."

New Mogul on the Block

The new owner of the Golden Nugget, the one who is currently renovating the property, is a Houston-based entrepreneur named Tilman Fertitta, and he is extremely bullish on the future of downtown. "We're happy," he says. "We think that the Golden Nugget name is one of the great names out there, and we think it's going to be great for us." While Fertitta owns five hotels in Texas and Landry's Restaurants Inc., which operates a portfolio of restaurant brands throughout the United States, the Golden Nugget properties in downtown and Laughlin, acquired last year, are his first casinos: "It's something that I thought about for years, and when it became such a growth industry—so many states have gaming now—I felt that being in the businesses that we're in, that it was something we needed to do."

Alluding to the suites in the legendary Spa Tower, Fertitta says, "To rebuild that property today would cost a lot more than we were able to pay for it." Still, "We're redoing our casino, we're adding restaurants: Vic & Anthony's, a Grotto, and maybe an Aquarium [all Landry brands]; we're adding on to the casino to make it 30 percent bigger, and we're adding a few hundred more rooms." Also, as part of the new tower, Fertitta is creating 15,000 square feet of meeting space, bringing the property's total to more than 35,000.

Needless to say, Mayor Goodman is happy to have someone like Fertitta to help anchor his vision. "I was just down in Houston for the NBA All-Star Game," says Goodman, "and I saw what Tilman Fertitta has done in Houston. He built an aquarium there," making his restaurant of that name its centerpiece, "and it is very, very ambitious. We dedicated a street for him, right next to the Golden Nugget, where he will be building a tower that will be the first new casino project in the last 25 years that I can remember. He'll have a 2,500-seat theater in it, and he's talking about an Aquarium-type restaurant."

Heart and Soul

Even with the sum of its current and projected investment, will downtown ever be in a position to take on the Strip? Perish the thought! "Downtown shouldn't be competing with the Strip," says Feldman. "The Strip represents, in terms of value, something like $40 billion of investment. Downtown's never going to be that, nor should it. What downtown ought to be is a different experience—its own place, its own environment." With the renovations at the Golden Nugget—and the recently announced extensive redo at the Lady Luck Casino Hotel that will temporarily close that property—planners can expect to see new and refreshed facilities with more meeting space. But what else can downtown offer? According to Mayor Goodman, a soul: "It's a soul that incorporates the old Las Vegas, the vintage Vegas, and—with what I'm trying to establish here—the modern Vegas. It all has to do with soul."


It's Another World

Flanking downtown Vegas is World Market Center, a home furnishings showroom complex that is also host of the Las Vegas Market trade show (which brought 1,200 exhibitors and 50,000 buyers to Vegas in January). The Center is creating what is ultimately expected to become eight buildings and 12 million square feet of furniture and design showrooms; currently under way is Phase I, a 10-story venue comprising 1.3 million square feet. World Market Center is considering adding a convention center.