Friday, Sept. 2, 2011 | 2 a.m.
A Las Vegas city councilman’s push to curtail noise at a downtown music venue threatens to derail development of the Fremont East District, critics say.
Councilman Ricki Barlow said his office has been bombarded with noise complaints from downtown residents and motel owners over the past six to eight months, primarily focused on Azul Tequila, a bar and music club that opened about a year ago west of the Downtowner, a weekly/monthly motel.
Ada Cohen, who built and has owned the Downtowner since it opened in 1963, said a decibel meter regularly measures sound from Azul on nights when bands play as high as 120 decibels, about equal to a thunderclap or chain saw.
“It has been hell,” Cohen said. Her clientele consists largely of elderly people, some of whom are placed there with city or county assistance. “There are times when the whole building just shakes.”
In the months since the noise began, Cohen said business has dropped off dramatically. “I’ve lost so many customers, people who say they simply won’t come back,” she said, adding that if something isn’t done about the noise, she “will go bankrupt.”
Barlow said he can’t ignore Cohen’s or any other noise complaints, even while businesses on East Fremont warn that such an ordinance would hurt their business.
“We want to continue to bring excitement and entertainment but allow those property owners who are not a part of the entertainment piece to run their businesses successfully and not run them out of downtown,” he said.
Frank Elam, owner of Azul Tequila, said the city is threatening to take away his liquor license if he doesn’t do something about the noise. His response to that is video of an exchange from the City Council’s May 5, 2009, meeting. During that meeting, Barlow and city officials were clear that noise from Azul Tequila was expected and not a problem because noise ordinances had been waived in the district.
“What does that (noise ordinance) do for this corridor?” Barlow asks Scott Adams, then the director of business development.
Adams replies that new provisions “exempt the entire six-block area from the city noise ordinance.”
Barlow concludes: “With that point of clarification, I am OK with lifting the two conditions (outside noise after 2 a.m., and a one-year review) … I believe that’s what we’re trying to do is create a lively entertainment area for tourists and residents alike who want to hang out to the wee hours of the morning, have a good time in the downtown area.”
Barlow remembers the meeting but says he can’t ignore complaints today.
Elam isn’t the only one balking at the proposal.
Clothing and shoe retailer Zappos.com is moving into City Hall in 2013, a move widely viewed as a breakthrough for downtown Las Vegas because it will not only bring thousands of workers to the area but also the energy of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”). Hsieh wants to help remake downtown into a cultural hub with music venues, technology startups and restaurants.
On the noise ordinance issue, he sides with Azul Tequila. He says that if the city enacts a noise ordinance in the entertainment district, it would seriously curtail development — including his own investment — in the area.
“There is a lot of energy, growth and momentum in the Fremont East District right now,” Hsieh said. “In addition to Zappos moving downtown, I’d love to personally invest and contribute more to the area. Any new ordinance that is not supported by the Fremont East board of directors would greatly concern me and would affect my personal investment plans.”
In a way, it’s old Vegas against new Vegas. The question is whether one wins, or by some diplomatic legerdemain a compromise can be struck that both can live with.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman called Hsieh’s position “a strong statement to be considered by the City Council.”
Goodman talked to the Sun after giving a speech christening a new bar, Swingers, in the Plaza. During her remarks she referenced Zappos’ move more than once.
“I’m very concerned about it,” she said about how the noise ordinance might affect downtown’s revival. She also said she had not yet talked to Barlow about his proposed ordinance. “My feeling is we have to get everyone together to come to some type of agreement, and one that doesn’t hurt the redevelopment that’s taking place and one that protects the taxpayers.
“If we keep our cool, stay calm, we can resolve this,” she added.
The city has suggested that Elam build a shell to reflect noise away from the Downtowner and to the west.
“But then it would be directed at the El Cortez,” Elam said, referring to another Azul neighbor, “and they have been so great to work with down here.”
The city has also talked about constructing a roof over the music area, but Elam said that would cost $250,000, “and I don’t have that kind of money.”
Elam said he invested $750,000 in the property in the first place only because of the city’s noise ordinance exemption.
“And it’s not like I’m saying I don’t care about the noise,” he added. “But give me my liquor license and I’ll continue to work with the city and the neighbors to resolve this thing.”
Several other businesses — existing and planned — want to open outdoor entertainment venues. The Beauty Bar has operated for several years with an outdoor stage. A Thai restaurant about to open on Fremont will have an outdoor area in back. Downtown operators have told the Sun about plans by at least two investors considering new businesses with outdoor venues.
Will older businesses fail because they can no longer operate the same? Will newer businesses be turned away by a noise ordinance?
Barlow admitted it’s a tough issue but part of a transition that comes with “the new era of downtown.”
“It’s a matter of (including) all parties,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to walk away saying they got the short end of the stick ... So, although the concept in the beginning was exciting to attract businesses into the area, and it is highly successful today, we can’t turn a blind eye to those longtime residents who are property owners,” he said.