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July 30, 2015

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Open-air market could be solution for Strip’s desolate north end

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Justin M. Bowen

The unfinished Echelon sits vacant on the Las Vegas Strip Thursday, April 1, 2010.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Throw this onto the ever-growing pile of the baffling: Why is there no discussion about blight on the Strip? Why is there no sense of concern — and with it, fresh ideas — about the long stretches of our most important economic and cultural asset that are pocked with half-finished projects or just empty land?

Think of the north end of the Strip: the concrete and steel shell of Echelon, which looks like something the travelers might have stumbled upon in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”; the vacant land where New Frontier was demolished to make way for the nonexistent replica of New York’s Plaza Hotel, and that great monument to the corporate citizenship of Carl Icahn — the unfinished Fontainebleau.

Most troubling of all, however, is the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, which counts among the skeaziest intersections in the entire United States.

It’s home to one functioning business — the “World’s Largest Gift Shop.” On the east side of the Strip, we have the blackened eyesore that was once to be an Ivanka Trump condo tower, and the closed Sahara — my suggestion that we turn it into the state capitol notwithstanding.

On the west side, there’s the aforementioned gift shop, and then an approximately 75-acre lot owned by MGM Resorts International, which at one time spoke of the land, combined with Circus Circus, as the next CityCenter.

Obviously there will be no next CityCenter. In fact, there won’t be anything there for a long time.

But I don’t understand why that means we have to settle for a big, dusty, vacant lot.

Here’s a modest proposal: The county or the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, or someone anyway, should rent the land from MGM — it would probably come cheap — and create a tented, open-air flea market.

I realize “flea market” sounds unappealing. Let’s just call it a market, and stipulate that it would be filled with an eclectic mix of high- and low-end arts and crafts and food and drink. Musicians could play. A nonprofit group could manage a public garden or water conservation demonstration project.

Robert Fielden, an architect and urban planner, likes the idea. “It seems like an ideal interim use until something happens at the north end of the Strip. In that sense it would work exceptionally well.”

His suggestion is to add an international element that would allow for a different cultural festival every week, including food, music, costume and dance.

Architect Eric Strain says we need to confront the blight well before Sahara. He says he was driving north on the Strip this week and was astounded by the change past Encore. “It was devastating. The whole air of the Strip changes. It’s like doomsday.”

Strain questions whether our extreme climate is right for a market, but he agrees we need to do something.

The Strip might object to all this talk, thinking we should zoom visitors from the airport to a slot machine where they can lose lose lose. That’s probably shortsighted.

In other cities, this kind marketplace is often a key attraction. Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston attracts more than 18 million visitors a year; the Portland Saturday Market, around since the 1970s, does $8 million in sales and draws an estimated 750,000 visitors; Seattle’s Pike Place Market brings 10 million visitors a year.

A market delivers more than just visitors, however. To begin with, they are a nice amenity for locals. When I was living in Portland and then Seattle, I brought visitors to those markets, but also spent many Saturdays wandering them alone because of the fun people-watching, the food and wares and ever changing entertainment.

A marketplace where real artists sell their creations and chefs sell their peasant food would also add a texture to the Strip that is missing.

Why is it missing? Well, corporate America, which owns most of the Strip, isn’t a great place to find texture.

And this is part of the larger point: It’s time to confront our stale thinking, which is narcotized by a slavish devotion to the corporate masters of the Strip. In other cities, when important resources are left fallow, no matter who owns them, the city fathers and mothers rally around and get creative about unleashing that unused potential.

Not us. We accept blight.

We need to start treating the Strip as our commons, our New England town green, as a community resource and not just a cash cow for shareholders — and creditors — in faraway places.

And if MGM can’t use the land — and it can’t — then why would we just let it sit there, wasted?

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