Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, May 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Map of Fremont East District
“It was ugly” is how one business owner described Friday night in the Fremont East Entertainment District.
“It felt dangerous,” said another.
And "it" might have been encouraged by the city closing a portion of Fremont Street during and after First Friday activities.
The First Friday art show/street fair is one of downtown’s biggest successes, driving 25,000 to 30,000 people to an area near Charleston Boulevard and Main Street on the first Friday night of each month.
Many of those people later show up to drink several blocks to the northeast on Fremont Street, where new taverns are popping up in the quickly redeveloping area.
When the city fashioned incentives for bars to move to the area years ago, one of the positive outcomes leaders foresaw was that it would create a bar-hopping area. Business incentives included selling liquor licenses relatively inexpensively and easing of distance requirements between places that sell alcohol.
Businesses responded. Within a roughly two-block area on Fremont Street, from Las Vegas Boulevard to Seventh Street, 13 establishments serve alcohol: seven are bars only, and six serve food and alcohol. Plans also are in the pipeline to bring more bars and bar/restaurants to the area.
All those people have undoubtedly been a boon to businesses.
But Friday night, the normally packed scene became more chaotic than on typical First Fridays, business owners say, because the city unexpectedly closed the street to vehicular traffic.
In turn, that created a street-party atmosphere leading to people “hanging out” and drinking from 12-packs or cases of beer — despite a publicity effort by Metro Police in late March to say they would issue warnings, then citations, if people drank openly on the street.
Jennifer Metzger, owner of Vanguard Lounge, 516 Fremont St., said the scene on Fremont Street included a few fights. But she also warned that if such chaos were to lead to something more seriously violent, businesses might be forced to close.
“If we have one incident down there, a knifing or a shooting, all of us (businesses) are going to get hit; some of us will go out of business,” Metzger said.
Metzger said city officials and business owners even met before First Friday, and the overwhelming majority of business owners said they did not want the street closed.
The city did it anyway.
Not only that, she said, but the city didn’t tell individual businesses the street-closing was going to take place.
The city’s Public Works Department said it closed the street on a “trial basis” because of concerns about crowd size after April’s First Friday, a city spokeswoman said.
“This closure was just as a test, and we will be evaluating the impacts of this closure on both the businesses in the area and on public safety,” said Diana Paul, city spokeswoman.
Fremont Street won’t be closed in June, she said, “so the city can compare the two conditions. … The city is just exploring the various options.”
Paul said that some people were informed about Friday’s closure, including Metro’s Downtown Area Command and Mike Nolan, Fremont East Entertainment District president.
Nolan, general manager of Fremont Street’s El Cortez hotel/casino, said he told the district’s board members, who include eight or nine downtown business owners, about the closure. The Vanguard’s owners are not on the board.
“We are trying to make sure everybody is on the same page,” Nolan said.
Nolan added that “communication needs to be cleared up. I think this is just a miscommunication.”
Most distressing to Metzger was city closing the street even though almost all Fremont East business operators were against the move.
She also said the city’s analysis wasn’t needed. Her staff saw enough just watching the street to know the closed street seemed to contribute to the chaos, and there weren’t enough Metro officers on hand for such a big crowd.
“This is why we stopped closing the street off a few years ago,” Metzger said, adding that as far as she knew, only one owner favored closing the street. “It was too chaotic then — too many people just hanging out — and there weren’t nearly as many people back then as there are now.”