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October 17, 2021

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Downtown Las Vegas:

With Oscar Goodman fully on board, the Plaza looks to its next 50 years

Downtown Casino

Steve Marcus

The Plaza is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a series of celebrations and events. The resort, 1 N. Main St., opened July 2, 1971.

Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel and Oscar Goodman

Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel and former mayor of Las Vegas Oscar Goodman pose for a photo, Wed. April 28, 2021. The iconic Plaza will celebrate its 50th anniversary this coming June. Launch slideshow »

During his time as mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman publicly said he believed the Plaza’s days were numbered.

“I said if they didn’t clean the place up, I’d get one of my old clients and we’d arson it,” Goodman joked. “It was horrible; it really was. You’d walk in and expect to see a body strewn somewhere. I think there was dried blood on the carpet back then.”

Goodman — a Vegas icon and former mob lawyer who embraces the city’s colorful past — made the comments in 2005, about six years after taking the office he would occupy for 12 years total.

The animosity Goodman had for the downtown resort is what ultimately failed to stand the test of time. The Plaza, which overlooks Fremont Street from its location at 1 N. Main St., will mark its 50th anniversary this summer.

During a sunny afternoon in late April, Goodman, dressed in a dark pinstriped suit with a pink tie, was sitting at a booth at Oscar’s Steakhouse, talking about old Vegas, new Vegas and where the two intersect.

The Plaza — which opened July 2, 1971, and will celebrate its five decades in existence through the end of the year — is a good place to start.

Even though he has other claims to fame, Goodman will always be remembered around Las Vegas for playing himself in a bit role in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film “Casino,” which also featured scenes shot at the Plaza.

“The Plaza is a wonderful place in a wonderful part of Las Vegas,” Goodman said. “There was a time that everybody said downtown was crime-ridden and homeless-ridden. The perception became the reality. Now, the homeless are being taken care of; they’re not on the streets the way they were with the Greyhound (bus) station closed. Downtown is probably one of the safest places in the valley now.”

Part of Goodman’s fondness for the Plaza, of course, comes from the restaurant that bears his name, which is on the second floor of the resort, above the glass dome enclosure that rests at the hotel’s main entrance.

Goodman, 81, doesn’t own the restaurant, which opened in 2011, but allows his name to be used as part of a licensing agreement.

The space used to house a restaurant called Firefly Kitchen.

Goodman said he was happy with the partnership, even if he disagrees somewhat with Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel — who at 37 is less than half Goodman’s age — on how the partnership came to be.

“The day I left the mayor’s office, I got a phone call from Jonathan,” Goodman said. “I came over and they asked me if I’d like to have a restaurant.”

Jossel said all it took to convince Goodman to seriously look into the idea was putting the former mayor’s name in lights on the glass dome.

“He’s right, that’s all it took,” Goodman said with a laugh. “I didn’t care what they were selling me at that point.”

Instead of one major concentrated celebration, Plaza’s 50th anniversary will be marked through the end of the year with various discounted stay packages and $50,000 in cash prizes that will be awarded to 50 winners.

The resort will put on fireworks shows July 2 through July 4 to mark the anniversary and the corresponding national holiday, and will have a party for dignitaries on the actual anniversary, Jossel said.

An additional celebration might take place later in the year, he said, which could coincide with the announcement or opening of a new late-night lounge and small live music venue.

“We have about an acre of land where the bus station used to be, and we’re working on concepts for that area, which is exciting,” Jossel said. “Also, when Oscar’s and the sports book close at 11 p.m., and when bingo closes at 10 p.m., we don’t really have any late-night activities. We’re struggling a little after 11 p.m. right now.”

There’s even talk, Jossel said, of more Oscar’s Steakhouse locations, possibly in New York, Japan or the United Kingdom.

The old bus station on the Plaza’s footprint, which had operated for nearly 50 years, closed in February after Plaza officials decided not to renew its lease for the space.

Though at the time Jossel called the closing an “end of an era,” he said it was necessary for the property to progress.

“I think a lot of people felt like getting rid of Greyhound wouldn’t make sense for the corporation,” Jossel said. “It was a great tenant that paid good rent. But they weren’t looking at the big picture. We looked at the value of not having a bus station and the issues that come with it. We were willing to offset that rent for what might be a better neighborhood.”

When the Plaza opened, it was known then as Union Plaza, built next to the old Union Pacific Railroad Depot.

It was billed then as the largest hotel-casino in the world with 500 rooms. Today, Plaza has about twice that many rooms.

Michael Green, an associate history professor at UNLV and a Nevada historian, said the Plaza had a significant place in any discussion about the history of downtown Las Vegas.

Green’s mother, in fact, worked at the Plaza for a time in the 1970s.

“Back then, it was known for having a great card room,” Green said. “A lot of the pro bowlers used to also hang out there. They’d come to town to bowl at the Showboat, but they’d go play Pan (Panguingue) at Union Plaza.”

Green also noted that, for years, KDWN Radio used to broadcast from the Plaza.

“I think that was really a coup for the hotel,” Green said. “That was our first 50,000-watt station in Las Vegas, so it blasted all through Southern California and Southern Utah and Arizona. I think that helped business.”

Along with plans for the additions Jossel mentioned, the resort is partnering with the city to build a pedestrian-friendly pathway that will lead to a new bridge over the train tracks behind the casino, which would allow pedestrians an easy path between the property and Symphony Park, home of the Smith Center for Performing Arts, the Discovery Children’s Museum and the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

One might say it’s all part of a vision for Plaza’s next 50 years in Las Vegas, though Jossel said he was hesitant to predict how the Plaza would be thought of 50 years from now.

“Nobody knows because Las Vegas is constantly changing and evolving,” Jossel said. “Even just five years ago, people would have laughed at the prediction of a billion-dollar resort (Circa Las Vegas) being downtown. Now, downtown has one.”

Like its city, Plaza has had to change to keep up with the times too.

Since the Tamares Group — a private real estate investment company — took ownership of the property about 15 years ago, numerous upgrades have been made.

The Plaza was closed for major renovations for several months beginning in 2010 before reopening in August 2011. That project included a refurbishing of all of the resort’s hotel rooms.

In 2019, another $15 million went toward the creation of luxury suites in the property’s North Tower.

Along with other Nevada casinos, Plaza was closed for close to three months last spring after a state-ordered closure to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Most employees — close to 700 in all at the resort — are back to work now as casino operators and Las Vegas tourism officials expect a busy summer.

While Jossel credits Tamares Group CEO Poju Zabludowicz with having the “vision” to invest in an area of downtown that some had all but written off as dead 15 years ago, Goodman credits Jossel and his “energy” in helping to breathe new life into a classic Vegas property.

“He reminds me of the old-timers,” Goodman said of Jossel. “He’s just in a young body. They looked at their property like it was their child back then. There was no corporate tinge. That’s the way the guys I grew up with in Las Vegas ran their joints — they called people by their first name and made them feel important.

When (Jossel) walks the casino floor, he talks to everybody, he knows everybody.”

Though there was a time when Goodman wouldn’t have cared if the Plaza had been imploded, he now has an office in the back of the steakhouse area and hosts a quarterly dinner series there, where onlookers buy tickets to listen to stories about old Vegas.

“I’m here every single day,” Goodman said. “This is a place that’s full of positive energy.”