Sunday, April 20, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Fremont Street is ground zero in a booze debate that has been simmering for several months and is focused on the question: Is downtown too saturated with alcohol?
It’s an odd question to ask in Las Vegas, known worldwide for its partying reputation. But downtown is being revitalized with new investment. And the answer depends largely on how you envision its future.
Will east Fremont Street, one of the oldest sections of the city, become a bustling center of commerce mixed with bars, restaurants, retail and services meant to serve a dense residential population?
Or will it become Bourbon Street West, a nightly bacchanal full of booze, shiny necklaces and bare-it-all wantonness?
Willingly or not, some recent moves by the city could result in more control, making the street less boozy and more neighborly.
One move occurred this month. At a meeting in a city building, staffers faced an angry audience of store owners from the Fremont Street Experience who sell packaged alcohol. They were angry after reading a draft of a new ordinance that suggested their stores close at 7 p.m. Casinos, however, would be allowed to operate their outdoor bars as usual.
Justification for the proposal was a city report in February that claimed crime and mayhem downtown are tied to the sale of alcohol from these stores. The store owners said the move would drive them out of business, and they claimed that’s just what the casinos want.
That’s one section of Fremont Street.
Adjacent to and east of the Fremont Street Experience, east Fremont Street also will face some new rules that could slow the proliferation of taverns. In March, the council approved a measure to partially reinstate tavern license fees in the area. For a few years, those fees had been waived in the interest of drawing new business.
Now, taverns there will pay half of the $20,000 standard tavern license fee.
At the same meeting, the council extended the discount to taverns in the Arts District, a mile to the southwest, saying that area needed more of an economic boost.
“The ultimate goal was to light east Fremont on fire,” Councilman Ricki Barlow said. “We are now in a position where we can taper back a bit.”
Indeed, taverns on Fremont Street have sprouted like weeds.
In a roughly one-block area, from Las Vegas Boulevard east to 6th Street and just beyond, 17 businesses are licensed to sell alcohol. All but a few have opened. Eleven serve just alcohol; the others are combination bar/restaurants.
Another bar or restaurant/bar is expected to open in the old John E. Carson motel, which is being repurposed at 6th and Fremont. Tavern-limited licenses are also being sought for three more spaces in a building at 7th and Carson, one block east of the John E. Carson.
Additionally, package liquor is expected to be sold at a planned grocery store/restaurant on Fremont Street between 6th and 7th streets. In the Container Park, the Boozery is alcohol-only and Bin 702 is a wine bar with food.
Almost all of those businesses have connection via ownership or investment to Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. Hsieh is CEO of Zappos, which moved its headquarters downtown last fall.
When Hsieh announced the formation of the Downtown Project a few years ago, he made no secret of his intention to create an area akin to historic 6th Street in Austin, Texas, which is dotted with bars, music venues and restaurants.
What’s different about 6th Street is that its taverns and restaurants have a steady supply of customers — students from nearby University of Texas. Though several thousand homeowners or renters live within a mile or two of east Fremont Street, it lacks the on-site, immediate density of several apartment buildings.
Hsieh’s Downtown Project is spending some $200 million acquiring and renovating property around Fremont, but many of its purchases lie untouched or behind fencing awaiting renovations. Further, the Downtown Project has not made any moves to indicate it wants to build apartments or any other kind of high-density housing in the area. Some would-be developers have talked about building something — but so far that’s only talk.
Tapping Las Vegas’ tourists might be one way to maintain a steady supply of customers. To some degree, that’s happening. Some downtowners have taken to calling east Fremont Street “The Strip II.” Metro even calls its new Fremont Street foot patrol program “Resort Corridor Policing.”
No matter how many people are drawn to the area, the same principles behind any successful business will separate the winners from the losers.
Michael Cornthwaite, who owns the Downtown Cocktail Room, Inspire and other businesses — some with the Downtown Project as an investment partner — said survivors will likely be those who provide better products and services.
“There’s a reason there are so many great bars in New York City — because you have to do a great job to survive,” he said. “That’s the point. You shouldn’t be able to just slide along and do nothing.”
Cornthwaite recently pulled three businesses out of the Container Park (a bar, restaurant and espresso outlet), saying he wanted to focus more on his other downtown businesses.
Across Fremont Street from Inspire, Chris LaPorte, owner of Insert Coin(s), a “barcade,” sees it a little differently.
“It’s too saturated” with bars, he said.
Insert Coin(s) just celebrated its third anniversary. It opened a second barcade in Minneapolis in 2012.
In Las Vegas, LaPorte has noticed a dip in business.
“Market share has definitely been cut to pieces,” he said. “There are not enough people to split among all of us. There’s very little residential. Parking isn’t as easy here.”
This past winter — bread-and-butter time for bars — also had several cold, rainy weekends. With cold and rain disappearing, LaPorte said he’s hoping business will improve.
There are some who see what’s happening on east Fremont Street as something of a natural outcome of redevelopment.
Developer Rich Worthington, president and CEO of the Molasky Group of Cos., said the Gaslamp District in San Diego had a similar growth pattern during its rebirth in the 1980s and ’90s. Immediately, taverns popped up everywhere.
Some of them went out of business.
It was bad for bar owners, but there was a silver lining for the district. In many instances, those taverns were replaced by service or retail businesses that could move in less expensively because they didn’t have to pay San Diego’s huge tavern-licensing fee.
That could happen in Las Vegas, too, Worthington added. It might even be more likely since the city eliminated the no-cost tavern license in the east Fremont area.
Worthington, former president of the Downtown Las Vegas Alliance, a consortium of downtown business leaders, said Las Vegas “had a great idea and it worked.”
“It produced fantastic results and now we’re getting that (business) density,” he said, adding that partially reinstituting the tavern license fee seemed a good adjustment.
“It will all be interesting to see how it looks a few years from now,” he said.