Friday, Oct. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
A European billionaire and contemporary art collector wants to convert an old fingerprinting station on East Fremont Street into a museum that would house his extensive collection.
Tamares Group Chief Executive and Chairman Poju Zabludowicz, of Liechtenstein, has twice attempted to build an art museum in downtown Las Vegas. And there’s no guarantee a third attempt will be the charm for the owner of the Plaza and other downtown casinos.
His proposal for a 23,000-square-foot Las Vegas Museum of Contemporary Art, which would also include a club and restaurant, is one of four projects vying for the 40-year-old brick building at 601 E. Fremont.
A selection committee in the city’s Office of Business Development will hear the proposals today.
The city-owned site is at the center of a bold attempt to transform a street once populated by drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless into something of a mini-Bourbon Street, dubbed the Fremont Entertainment District.
Terry Murphy, a local consultant representing Zabludowicz (pronounced “zah-blue-DOH-vich”), said the museum would help the city move toward its goal of developing a vibrant downtown and reversing its image as a cultural wasteland.
“It would become a central gathering place for people and help bolster Las Vegas’ position in the international art community,” she said. “It would also become an anchor to attract other business operators downtown.”
The city has spent millions installing city-style sidewalks in the area and erecting four 40-foot-tall neon signs in the median. Officials have also offered relatively inexpensive liquor licenses and relaxed restrictions that prevent the clustering of taverns.
But other than a few clubs’ moving in two years ago, little has happened. The city’s selection for its building at 601 E. Fremont could create needed momentum.
City officials view the intense interest in the site — the four finalists were selected from seven proposals — as a good sign for downtown redevelopment. With major Strip developers pulling out or slowing down building schedules, four proposals for the building in a struggling area came as something of a surprise.
The city is “seeing an uptick in planning new projects by developers anticipating a recovery,” said Scott Adams, Las Vegas’ business development director.
The other three finalists for the site are:
• Viva La Velvet Towers, described as a retail/entertainment/hotel project, proposed by RMD Development/TLC Enterprises;
• A 24-hour diner and possible comedy club/male revue and boutique hotel, backed by three people with experience doing business downtown — Charles Fox, owner of the Bunkhouse tavern, Doug DeMasi, a Las Vegas real estate broker, and Kamran Foulad, a California contractor/engineer;
• A True NightLife plan, described in city documents only as “clubs.”
With banks watching every last dollar closely, the millions needed for even a small development will be hard to come by. A key to winning the city’s go-ahead will be funding.
Murphy said Zabludowicz would fund the museum with his own money.
RMD Development/TLC Enterprises has told the city it would pay for its project with a loan. The group could not be reached for comment.
Fox said his group has financing in place for the 24-hour diner development. “We’re not going through the banks, we’re using private monies,” he said.
True NightLife, whose representatives could not be reached, has indicated it would partner with the city to fund its venture.
At least one member of Las Vegas’ art community thinks it should be an easy decision for city officials. A Las Vegas museum housing Zabludowicz’s collection would be “a gift,” said Libby Lumpkin, executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum.
“We should be doing back flips to get that here,” she said. “If the city wants downtown to actually become an arts district of merit, then this would be a huge plus.”
But DeMasi noted that Zabludowicz’s track record in Las Vegas is uneven. The Tamares Group has had at least three storefronts within a block of 601 E. Fremont for about a year, and to date they remain empty, he said.
“I’d stack our properties against their properties any time,” DeMasi said. “I don’t think the city should be rewarding that kind of ownership.”
Murphy said one of Tamares’ downtown storefronts will be home to a piano bar by the end of the year. Other potential tenants, she said, have not fit the city’s or the company’s vision for the downtown entertainment area.
“If we were in it for the money, we’d have it leased out already to businesses that added no value to the district,” Murphy said. “But that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking toward the long-term viability of that area.”