Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2019

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$9.5 billion arena complex goes here - that’s the plan

To Antonin "Web" Mueller and his girlfriend, Kitty , it matters little what the Las Vegas City Council does with, or what any arena developer has in mind for the property they are standing on in this seedier section of downtown.

The $9.5 billion sports arena project that the City Council will discuss with developers today is far, far from their minds.

In Tuesday's 110-degree heat, the couple talk about their recent release from jail, about the twins she miscarried in jail and about Mueller's late father, who he said was a former Virginia state senator.

Kitty reaches into her stuffed handbag and unfolds ultrasound pictures of the twins.

But the couple, who have been together for three years, are fixated on something besides their lost babies and the heat. It's their next fix, which is on its way via a heroin connection meeting them at the intersection of their alleyway and Wyoming Avenue.

"We're open about it, because everyone knows we're addicts," said a smiling Kitty, who's been hooked on heroin since her mom introduced it to her when she was 7. Her arms are scarred from old abscesses and blue from the bruises of fresh needle-sticks.

She uses one of those arms to point down the alley to an encampment of crack addicts huddled in the shade under blankets stretched over shopping carts.

These outdoor squatters will disappear - along with auto-repair shops, a used-car dealership, vacant buildings, several furniture stores and two boxing gyms - if something of a miracle takes place in the next few years.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has said it's a long shot. Financing such a massive project, which would even outdo CityCenter, the $7.4 billion project on the Strip, would be an incredible undertaking.

REI Neon, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., real estate development company, has been quietly pushing its plans to develop about 85 downtown acres with a 22,000-seat arena, casinos, condos and stores. The property - bound by Main Street, Wyoming Avenue, Charleston Boulevard and the railroad tracks - is now in the hands of 120 owners, all of whom have signed the equivalent of a letter of intent to sell their property to REI Neon.

"It's remarkable," said Scott Adams, the city' s business development director. "They did it quietly ; they did it on their own. It's incredible."

"I think that assemblage of properties might be second to none in history," Goodman said. "And it was done without eminent domain, without government intervention."

Talk to enough property owners, and you get the sense that it was a project whose time had come. Or, as one put it, a no-brainer.

Las Vegas is growing, but not just in numbers of people. Its growth is accompanied by a changing demographic. Maybe it's because it's so hard to drive around on our packed streets and downtown is centrally located. Maybe it's because people are tired of cookie-cutter homes miles from their jobs. For whatever reason, people with monied careers have, for the past five years or so, been moving back into many of the older, character-filled homes in and around downtown.

Businesses are moving in, too. At least four residential high-rise buildings are up or going up. Fremont Street East, which was once the domain of only the seedy and the scary, is getting a face-lift, and bars and clubs are starting up. The Arts District draws thousands to its First Friday event and art galleries seem to be popping up everywhere around Charleston Boulevard.

It was only a matter of time before a large venture - some would say gutsy, others would say visionary - threw its money into the pock-marked area between Charleston and the Stratosphere.

And those folks who have been doing business here 10, 20, 30 years or more? Many of them couldn't be happier.

"I can't wait to get out of here," said Dino Boggiano, a 47-year-old who owns Astro Auto Sales on Main Street. Boggiano, originally from the Bronx, N.Y., has been shot, his massive pane-glass windows have been broken so many times he only tapes them now because it costs so much to replace them. And his business suffers because his clientele doesn't have much money. If he had a car on sale for more than $5,000, it would never sell.

"And you're asking me if it's going to be hard to leave?" he said, chuckling with disbelief. "No man, it ain't hard."

A few doors down, Rita Martin, owner of Swim-In Pool Supply - she designed the neon, animated sign of a swimmer going down a slide - said she'll move if REI Neon actually comes through with the money.

And she's been in that spot since 1973.

"Well, I'd be foolish to turn it down," said Martin, a youthful looking 84-year-old. "But you know it's such a big project, there's still a lot of negotiating to do."

She added that she's heard of quiet negotiations going on for a huge piece of property on the other side of Main Street, more toward Las Vegas Boulevard. A city source confirmed that "talks of talks" are being heard, but no one in City Hall has been officially involved in them.

Development on the eastern side of Main Street, though, would be understandable if REI Neon's project came to fruition. With 6,000 hotel rooms, 1,500 condos, 1,600 time-shares, a basketball/hockey arena, 785,000 square feet of retail, almost 4 million square feet of convention space and an additional 500,000 square feet of office space, immense need would exist for services that don't exist now. Not only that, but a swank project would be bound to spin off nearby development. So maybe a developer with a crystal ball is trying to get a head start and grab land now.

After the City Council meets today, and gives the essential go-ahead for REI Neon to negotiate with the city, angry letters will arrive in the mayor's office. Then again, so will letters of support.

But for at least the next year, this area will remain largely unchanged. Astro Auto Sales will keep doing business. Swim-in Pool will keep doing business. And Kitty and Mueller will maintain their beatific smiles, just so long as their connection keeps turning up on Wyoming Avenue.