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October 18, 2018

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Las Vegas Rocks Cafe closes at Neonopolis, and we’re surprised … why, exactly?

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Jackie Brett

Tony Orlando, right, with Las Vegas Rocks Cafe founder Tony Sacca.

Click to enlarge photo

Rohit Joshi, checking out the scene outside Neonopolis.

The rule of the land in VegasVille is, when the mayor warns you about doing business on one of the city’s most famous corners, it’s probably a good idea to heed that warning.

Longtime Vegas entertainer and businessman Tony Sacca was reminded of that reality when his Las Vegas Rocks Cafe closed for good in early January.

“I warned Tony to be careful,” Goodman said this month in his City Hall office. “Neonopolis is the bane of my existence.”

Nonetheless, the ever self-assured Sacca made a commendable effort at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard. He opened with great fanfare, as his friend Tony Orlando helped christen the place. But predictably, Sacca found the environment at Neonopolis about as welcoming as a blast furnace.

"The last time I talked to the mayor, he told me, 'I told you so.' " Sacca says. "Everybody is saying, 'I told you so.' "

For a little more than a year, Sacca had been trying to do business in the space formerly occupied by the family fun center Jillian’s on the bottom level of the largely moribund retail and entertainment center. But over the summer, he was felled by what melted other prominent businesses at Neonopolis, most notably Galaxy Theaters: a sweltering absence of air conditioning at the property.

Sacca made it through the summer by supplying his own temporary AC system, which itself became too expensive to maintain. But at least that process allowed the restaurant he and partner Le Blond opened to stay in business and kept the rotation of production shows at the Marquee Room buzzing along. But at the start of the year, Sacca asked again for a commitment from Rohit Joshi, who heads the investment group Wirrulla Hayward, which owns Neonopolis, that there would be air conditioning in place for this summer.

Not hardly. You'd sooner see a return of the Fremont Street Reggae and Blues Club on the parcel where Neonopolis now stands.

When no such commitment was leveled, Sacca was forced to shut down all operations, and Las Vegas Rocks is among the ill-fated businesses stacked high in the wrecking yard that is Neonopolis. An entertainer for decades and host of the interview show "Entertainment Las Vegas Style," Sacca certainly lost a fortune on this project; Sacca's estimation is that he and Le Blond invested about $1 million, combined, into the club.

Joshi’s simple explanation for the absence of a climate-controlled environment at Las Vegas Rocks is, if tenants can’t pay rent for the privilege of doing business at Neonopolis, they don’t receive any air conditioning service.

It's a Catch-22, or a Catch-122 Fahrenheit.

Joshi also said that he’s not actually the person in charge of tenant contracts at that space. His pointed out that his wife, Lorraine Kusuhara, is the person in command, as she owns the liquor license and the lease for that vast but lifeless parcel. Kusuhara ran Jillian’s for a time before it closed in November 2008. (When reminded that Kusuhara, not Joshi, is actually the proprietor of the old Jillian’s space, Goodman quickly responded, “Same thing.”)

The saga ended in an unseemly sort of way, amid a spate of allegations of broken promises. Sacca says he and Le Blond met with Joshi and Kusuhara in July 2009, during which the entrepreneurs were ensured that they would have proper air conditioning in place by the time the temperature began to rise in Las Vegas, or around mid-April. "They promised us air during that meeting," Sacca says. "I really don't think he thought we'd be successful, that we'd survive until the hot air came in."

In September 2009, Sacca and Le Blond signed the lease to do business at Neonopolis. In October and November, the two made more than $100,000 in improvements on the space, and opened in December. Sacca says he paid rent from December through May with none of the improvements he'd been promised -- including new bathrooms and the now-phantom air conditioning -- ever being enacted.

By May of last year, as the temperature inside the restaurant and nightclub surpassed 100 degrees, Sacca was forced to close the business for most days through the end of August. The club never recovered.

What now? Don't be surprised if Sacca and Le Blond go after Joshi and Kusuhara legally, though Sacca refers to Joshi as "The Teflon Developer" and "The Indian John Gotti" for his ability to skirt angry tenants and remain at the helm of the project even without air conditioning. The company that originally supplied Neonopolis with air conditioning, Massachusetts-based Ameresco, cut off service in the summer of 2009, saying it was owed $300,000 in unpaid bills. Service has not been fully restored since.

You also might remember that Jillian’s closed amid news (much of it imparted by Joshi) that Star Trek: The Experience would be moving into Neonopolis sometime in the spring of 2009. Business would take off, certainly -- at warp speed!

But Joshi’s latest comment about Star Trek moving in is: “I have no comments about Star Trek.” (This means that Michael Cornthwaite likely gets to keep Downtown Cocktail Room, kitty-corner from Neonopolis, which he said he'd bet against anyone who thought Star Trek would move into the neighborhood.)

So don’t count on Star Trek, either, at least not at Neonopolis, where the atmosphere is always red hot.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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