Las Vegas Sun
Monday, March 16, 2009 | 1:56 a.m.
I vividly remember the tail end of a wild tale once told by Rohit Joshi, a man I would swiftly dub the Maharishi of Downtown Development. It was in the summer of 2007, and he was going on and on about the grand designs he held for Neonopolis. At the time, Neonopolis was home to three tenants: Jillian’s (the fortress of sports viewing, Skee-Ball and kids playing the rock ’n’ roll that has since closed); Galaxy Theaters (quiet in here, ain’t it?) and Del Prado Family Jewelers, whose happy owner was allowed to reside rent-free because he’s a great guy and also because he’s part of a fairly famous second-generation Las Vegas family who has been doing business in Vegas for nearly 40 years.
That was it. Movie theaters, an ill-fated bar-restaurant-arcade-music venue and the struggling Del Prado House o’ Baubles. The Poker Dome studio complex came and went, too, in a deflating retail and entertainment center that was 85 percent full when its previous owners, Prudential Insurance, opened it in 2003.
“I have a very, very good brand name coming,” the Mumbai-born Joshi said during a lengthy interview in June 2007. He then swept his hand over a locked briefcase sitting in front of him on a conference room table. “In this briefcase lie my answers. But I am not ready to give them out.”
They are out now. Since that day, the documents have started to come to life on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. The Star Trek Experience has signed a contract to lease space at Neonopolis and is expected to open a couple of its attractions (its gift shop and bar/restaurant, likely) on May 8, when the new “Star Trek” movie opens nationwide. Telemundo, NBC’s Hispanic-targeted TV network, now occupies the third floor. On the second floor, in the space once filled by Frederick’s of Hollywood and such walk-up eateries as Sbarro and La Salsa in the Neonopolis food court, are two arts entities startling in their size and scope. One is the Arts Center at Neonopolis, featuring about 30 spaces leased by artists in all array of mediums. With the closing of the Las Vegas Art Museum on Feb. 28, the Art Center -- operated by longtime Las Vegas artist and art figure and onetime LVAM Director Joe Palermo –- will likely grow into one of the city’s more significant venues for the creation and selling of art. Debbie Sussman’s Art Creates, Frank Mazzuca, photographer William Carr, Gina Quaranto, Antonio Castaneda’s Professional Welding, Robbie Bustos and Laury A. Monk’s Wired & Stoned custom jewelry, Bonnie Kelso, Daniel Pearson, Marilyn Olsen’s Grackle Graphics, D’Art Designs, Daniel Pearson’s Circadian Galleries, Michael Griesgraber and A.D. Cook are just a sample of the galleries and artists represented. I met all of these folks during a whirlwind tour of the space a few days ago with Joshi and Palermo.
Next door to the artists’ colony, where Frederick’s lace-and-leather nighties were once displayed, the Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art is currently exhibiting the revealing Women Redux exhibit, sculptures crafted by Roberta Baskin Shefrin and paintings by Susanne Forestieri. The Barbizon School collection is also on display, which Joshi likes to say is more expensive than the original $25 million his investment group, Wirrulla Hayward, paid for the 250,000-square-foot mall in 2006 (the total investment is now at least $40 million). Also in plans on the third floor are three theaters that can be used for community theater and small-scale productions, even a comedy club. That space remains one to watch for all sorts of reasons. Joshi says an “Old Vegas-style” production would fit there, and there are a few shows fitting that description that are looking for a place to play – “Evening at La Cage” and “Folies Bergere” are a couple.
Downstairs, the Taste of California Deli opened last year, as did the Sushi Ma restaurant. La Luna Restaurant, an Italian joint, and El Nopal Mexican Grill is scheduled to open this year, too. Wet Ultra Lounge is a confirmed club tenant, and Joshi is coy about the second club tenant, which has interests in L.A. and on the Strip. Based on Joshi’s description, Krave is the one that fits best.
Beyond the Sun
As for Star Trek, Joshi has run afoul of CBS, which owns the Trek title and licensing rights by specifying just what will happen at Neonopolis. But the attraction will be an advanced version of the LV Hilton’s indoor theme park, which drew a steady stream of Trekkers for 10 years (Joshi needs to embrace that proper term and lose “Trekkies”), and occupy a large chunk of the bottom floor and expand skyward. Expect a museum, an IMAX 4D feature and an admission fee of no more than $25 per ticket.
“Star Trek will be great for the city, great for downtown,” Joshi says, his eyes dancing at the thought of Neonopolis crawling with Ferengi. “I have been getting calls from all over the world about it.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Joshi was a man who Mayor Oscar Goodman once accused of spouting “gobbledygook,” and who less than two years ago was actively seeking someone to buy Neonopolis out from under Wirrulla Hayward. Joshi toyed with the idea, but derided the tepidly interested as mere “looky-loos.” Today, as the iconic corner has built up around him -- the Fremont East entertainment district has bloomed with the Downtown Cocktail Room, Hennessey’s, Brass Lounge, Mickey Finnz and the Griffin -- Joshi seems to be sitting pretty.
Not a moment too soon.
“With the mayor, if you produce good results, he’ll respect you,” Joshi said. “If you don’t do what you promise, he’ll rebuke you. For both sides, it’s been a tough go.”