Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009 | 3:57 a.m.
Fancy cocktails that flow freely on the Strip were nowhere to be seen on New Year's Eve under the Fremont Street Experience’s canopy of lights. Instead, people walked around holding plastic cups shaped as footballs filled to the brim with beer.
After some rough economic times this year, the unpretentious atmosphere that downtown offered seemed to be just what those who came to celebrate the new year needed. With a come-as-you-are attitude, some of the thousands who crowded the Fremont area wore party dresses, while others were clad more comfortably in sweatshirts.
That easy-going attitude had a strong appeal to some.
Andrew Matthews, 27, who moved to Las Vegas from Fort Bragg, N.C., three years ago, said it was a simple decision to choose to spend his evening downtown.
“I can come down here and get a drink for $2 or go to the Strip and be in a room with 10,000 other people and hope a washed up celebrity shows up,” Matthews said. “You have to come down here where the people are.”
Danny Maline, 23, who has lived in Vegas for two years, said he enjoyed going to Fremont Street on a regular basis because it reminded him of where he grew up.
“I just find it uplifting. It reminds me of Cleveland, a working man’s town,” he said. “The working class of Las Vegas comes to Fremont.”
For Jennifer Larson, 40, of Las Vegas, this marked her fifth New Year’s Eve downtown. She noticed that this year, with locals getting in free, the crowd was a little different.
“There’s no one scary, just rougher around the edges,” Larson said.
Bertha Gomez, 45, said that people tried to discourage her from going downtown since free admission for locals could mean a rowdy crowd. But Gomez said the large number of Metro officers made her feel safe.
Sgt. Greg Rosenlund of Metro said the crowd was very peaceful downtown and that they had been lucky so far at 10 p.m. He said that while this was his first time working on Fremont Street, it was not very different from his years on the Strip and that he doesn’t usually have problems.
After frequent trips to Las Vegas from Barstow, Calif., Melissa Hernandez and her husband Brandon decided to ring in the new year downtown. The laid-back atmosphere was reflected in the 64-ounce beers they sipped — and was what inspired their choice of spending New Year’s Eve on Fremont Street. They said the live music and cheap prices made them happy with their decision.
“We come here on our own time so we decided to check it out on New Year’s Eve because it’s always been a good time,” Brandon Hernandez said. “You can enjoy yourself without having all the knuckleheads on the Strip.”
“We’re going to try to make this a yearly tradition,” Melissa Hernandez said. “We’ve already called friends and recommended this for next year.”
Downtown’s end-of-the-year celebration, for some, was a celebration of downtown itself.
Brian Havens, 23, of the local band Lazystars, loves that downtown is up and coming and said that while this is not his first New Year’s Eve on Fremont Street, he is viewing it differently.
“It’s my first New Year’s Eve on Fremont Street with this new mentality of this is where everything is happening,” Havens said.
While thousands were celebrating, hundreds were working on Fremont Street and inside its hotels.
Rochelle Law, a cocktail waitress at Binion’s for 22 years, was rushing around the casino floor around people who might have celebrated too much.
“You get a lot of people who are amateur drinkers,” Law said after mentioning that someone just threw up into a change compartment of a slot machine.
Law said that before the economy took a nosedive, things were much different. “The money we made was incredible,” she said.
Windell Clark, a Fremont Street Experience security guard, was happy that no one under 21 was allowed into the experience until after 12:30 a.m. so guards didn’t have to worry about underage people drinking.
“When it’s simple like that, it’s so much easier to deal with. No headaches,” Clark said.
Every cross street had a gate with workers collecting tourists’ $20 and giving out passes to Fremont Street. “At this gate we’re getting more locals,” Janet Lazarus, an employee with Marathon Staffing. “I’ve worked on Las Vegas Boulevard in years past and that’s crazier.”
While downtown was not packed to capacity, stage areas were difficult to maneuver and several groups danced in clusters during Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.” And the mood was upbeat — when revelers weren’t dancing with their fellows, they were complimenting strangers on their spiked hair or cute shoes and nearly everyone sported “2009” glasses or at least a “Happy New Year” party hat.
And the honor of ushering the city into the new year went to Mayor Oscar Goodman.
Goodman, with two showgirls in tow, counted down to midnight. And, at the stroke of 12, for the first time, real fireworks accompanied the LED firework display on the Fremont Street Experience’s canopy — a fiery, neon tribute to 2009.