Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 | midnight
Andrew Fonfa doesn’t want me to write this. He knows I have to, he knows I want to, but he also wants us to know that everything in this column is entirely speculative. This is a real-estate story, after all, and there is absolutely nothing in this awful real-estate era that is predictable.
Yet it’s also a story of a potential social revolution and, in that respect, cannot be ignored. If Andrew Fonfa and his lesbian sister, Gudren, pull off what they’ve long hoped and dreamed, they will have rocked the travel market and redefined a piece of Las Vegas in a profound way.
So let’s get right to it: The Fonfas want to build a $1.2 billion, 1,000-unit, 45-story hotel-casino catering primarily and openly to gays and lesbians and managed by the Wyndham hotel chain. It would boldly be called the Q, as in “queer.” And it would stand tall and proud by early in the next decade at the northwest corner of Sahara and the Las Vegas Strip as the first of its kind in the world.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t cover something so iffy. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the announced Vegas development projects that have died. And the Fonfas themselves insist this one may never come to fruition, either.
But they also have earned a certain credibility that makes what they say and do matter, having already built the 41-story Allure Las Vegas on the same corner as the maybe-future Q. The only other folks who have completed such condo buildings on the Strip are MGM Mirage and Trump, which puts the Fonfas in good company. And Andrew Fonfa, who is not gay, already operates a casino in Indian Springs and has owned the Sahara-Strip property for decades.
The Fonfas haven’t formally announced the Q plan largely because there’s no telling when the American credit market will dig out of its crater. But they’ve begun to quietly spread the word.
In August, they hosted a 75th-birthday party at Allure for prominent local lesbian activist Marlene Adrian at which they displayed a rendering of the sleek silver-and-gold Q building. And last month they held a “coming-out party” in Manhattan for gay Gotham real-estate agents to promote units at Allure to gay buyers. The appeal, according to the invitation, was that the existing building neighbors “the future Q Casino Resort, which will be the world’s first ultra-luxury hotel/casino and condominiums created by and for the LGBTQ community and our friends who celebrate diversity!” (LGBTQ is alphabet-soup shorthand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.)
Even if Q never exists, this effort to sell blocks of Allure units to gays—to essentially turn it into a gay-dominated condo—is equally new. Allure wasn’t built as a gay condo; marketing to the gay world is something of a backup plan now that so many customers who reserved Allure units have failed to close on them. But the Fonfas have revealed the Q plans, which have been in the works for years, to encourage this market to come to them.
If that works, Allure will provide Vegas with something it doesn’t currently have: A gayborhood. As author of the only gay guidebook for Vegas, I’m frequently asked where the gays live. The answer, which disappoints many, is that we’re assimilated across the Valley just as most minority groups are in a city as new as this one that has grown up in such a fits-and-spurts manner.
You straight folk may wonder why a minority would self-segregate. Fact is, many gay couples move to Vegas from places where, as the only gay couples on their blocks, they’re shunned and gossiped about. Yes, that happens, and it’s tiresome.
That said, though, your view is irrelevant; there’s a market for it. Real-estate agent Jack Levine, who is gay, also gets the question a lot. For years, in fact, he’s worked to build a de facto gayborhood east of Downtown by trying to shunt gay and lesbian newcomers toward those charming, mid-priced, need-lots-of-work 50-year-old homes.
“We certainly don’t have a West Hollywood or a Castro, but all the historic neighborhoods are full of a lot of gay people,” said Levine, who blogs at VeryVintageVegas.com. “A high-rise like Allure provides a very good alternative.”
Whether or not Allure goes gay, the Fonfas still hope to use the three acres next to it for the Q, and they’re convinced a high-end gay leisure market could support it. Andrew Fonfa cites research by Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based gay consumer-research firm, that found 67 percent of gays said they’d stay at a gay casino resort in Vegas if one existed. Community Marketing has also found that Vegas is the second most popular gay destination—ahead of San Francisco and behind only New York.
If just 5 percent of the 40 million annual Vegas tourists are gay, and two-thirds of them would want to stay at a place like Q, Andrew Fonfa figures he could “fill up 14 or 15 times a night.” Right now, the only gay offering is the Blue Moon Resort, a rehabbed Travelodge hidden in an industrial park just west of the Strip that caters solely to gay men and has but a scant 40 rooms. It’s usually sold out.
“I may be a liberal person, but I’m truly a capitalist,” Fonfa said. “Yes, I do think a gay hotel-casino would be very successful. And we could get it funded. Why is the MGM having trouble getting money, why’s the Las Vegas Sands or Wynn or Boyd having trouble getting money? Because they’re all after the same customer. A gay hotel-casino is going for a specific audience, offering something different.”
He certainly wouldn’t need any help promoting the place. Opening a 45-story Strip resort for gays would be a massive news event, would engender enormous brand loyalty among gay consumers and would create an identifiable worldwide monument to gay pride and commercial might.
It may never happen, as Fonfa repeatedly reminded me. But it was impossible for me to not be charmed by the very concept. What irony that would be: The street paved by the gold of heterosexual fantasy becomes a bona fide gay mecca. What would the macho mobsters who built this city have said to that?