Friday, May 3, 2002 | 11:13 a.m.
The face of downtown Las Vegas was transformed this morning with the opening of Neonopolis, a 200,000-square-foot entertainment complex seen as the cornerstone in the city's redevelopment efforts.
A next-door neighbor of the Fremont Street Experience light show and pedestrian walkway, the $99 million Neonopolis is expected to attract the thousands of people who work downtown and locals looking for entertainment that doesn't include gaming, developers said.
At a boisterous premiere Thursday night marked by the smell of fresh paint and the sound of buzzing neon, city officials said it was a banner day for redevelopment. They said Neonopolis proves the area can attract developers willing to invest in downtown.
But there's still a long way to go.
When Neonopolis opens to the public this morning, it will be a "soft opening," with a majority of shops not ready. In the entire complex, only the 14-screen movie theater -- showing "Spider-Man" -- the food court, an art gallery, a sports shop, and the ZINC specialty store will be open. Leasing agents said La Salsa, its tavern and several other shops will open in the coming week. The second anchor tenant, Jillian's, will open in the fall.
The sight of empty stores, though, did little to quell the enthusiasm of city officials, project staff and downtown stakeholders who hope Neonopolis will spur new development in the area.
Don Snyder, president of Boyd Gaming Corp., said Neonopolis -- with its retail and entertainment component -- is just the thing needed to redevelop the area, giving people a reason to come -- and stay -- downtown. While locals may have given up on downtown in the past, Snyder said Neonopolis will give them a reason to come back.
"All we're asking is for people to come down here once," Snyder said. "If they don't like it, they don't have to come back. But give it a chance."
Snyder said Neonopolis will work well with other proposed projects downtown, including a nearby 6,500-seat arena that will house minor league hockey and other events. The arena will not have on-site parking, creating a situation where visitors could park at Neonopolis, eat, shop, and then walk to a hockey game or boxing match.
While Neonopolis has been a long time coming, Snyder said redevelopment in general has its hurdles. Neonopolis is a step in the right direction, he said.
"New development starts with a clean slate and builds upward," Snyder said. "With redevelopment, you have to unbuild before you can start building and it takes a long time."
Gene Sisco, development manager for World Entertainment Center, said Neonopolis was designed as the "anti-Strip experience," where visitors don't have to take a long walk along Las Vegas Boulevard to "people watch," dine and be entertained.
"Here, we've created a new town center for downtown, where it's a place to see and be seen," he said.
Sisco said Neonopolis will be aimed at three separate groups. The first is the 21 million tourists who visit the Fremont Street Experience every year, with "no place to shop," he said. The second is the nearly 70,000 downtown office workers looking for a new lunch spot. The third segment is locals looking for independent art films, expected to be shown along with first-run films, and a place for convenient entertainment.
Michael Newman of Colliers International said the jury is still out on whether Neonopolis will be as successful as officials hope. He said a key element to the success of any downtown redevelopment project is new housing. Without it, the project is depending on locals, who can get their entertainment near their homes.
"Unless the destination can offer something that is appealing to the market that they can't get in their own neighborhood, people aren't going to travel (downtown)," he said.
"Seven or eight years ago there weren't theaters all over town, but today there is an assortment of multi-screen theaters in almost every neighborhood."
Several of those on hand said they had high hopes for the complex because it reminded them of the successful Horton Plaza, a similar open-air redevelopment project in downtown San Diego -- without the neon lights.
"The concept of this project just dwarfs Horton Plaza," Mayor Oscar Goodman said. "I think all of Southern California is going to come down here to check out this place."
Thursday's premiere capped nearly four years of planning, two mayors, several groundbreaking ceremonies and an uphill climb for leasing agents.
The vision for a downtown entertainment and retail center was sparked by former Mayor Jan Jones. But when Jones decided against running for re-election in 1999, Goodman was elected and found he had inherited a project he did not initially support.
"It wasn't a love affair, folks," Goodman said of the project, which had been scheduled to open in November 2000.
Construction was delayed when the project's first anchor tenant, Mann Theatres, pulled out after its parent company filed for bankruptcy, and the developer squabbled with the city over completion of an underground parking garage.
Despite the setbacks, a new anchor tenant was signed in May 2001 -- Crown Theatres, which opened its 14-screen theater.
City Manager Virginia Valentine, who has had Neonopolis on her plate since she was hired in 1998, said what makes the project attractive is it combines dining, movies and entertainment in one location with convenient parking.
"It's a whole evening, not just a movie," she said. "People are going to spend less time driving around and more time having fun."
Neonopolis is a big part of the city's effort to try to make downtown Las Vegas a place for people to live, work and play. The city invested $40.5 million in the project,including $23 million for the land at the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, and $15 million for construction of an underground parking garage.
The city received $8 million back from the developer for land rights. With revenue from the 600-space parking garage and property taxes from the development, the city expects to recoup its investment in 20 years.
"The word will spread that, 'Wow, did you see what's happening in downtown Las Vegas?' " Goodman said. "Neonopolis is going to be great for downtown, the keystone of our renaissance."