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New casino, restaurants brighten downtown Vegas

By Hannah Dreier

Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:02 a.m. HST, Nov 14, 2013


LAS VEGAS >> The newest addition to Las Vegas' resurgent downtown announced itself this week with a marching band, a ribbon cutting and, of course, showgirls.

The Downtown Grand hotel-casino, which actually opened its doors in late October, aims to introduce an element of luxury among the retro casinos that populate old Las Vegas.

The hotel is one of several new businesses opening in the town's long-neglected core. A collection of high-concept restaurants recently has remade the look of the blocks around the loveably tacky Fremont Street Experience. A private park built around shipping containers is expected to open next month, and after that, a theater.

Downtown Las Vegas lies about 15 minutes north of the Strip. It's anchored by the Fremont Street Experience-- a walking mall under a metal canopy that displays a nightly light show-- and boasts some of the town's oldest casinos, including the Golden Nugget.

The Grand is taking over the former site of the Lady Luck casino on 3rd Street and Ogden Avenue, which has sat empty for years, adding to the blight that still characterizes much of the heart of Las Vegas.

The Lady Luck casino opened in 1964 as a pinball and slot machine parlor called "Honest John's." It was renamed in 1968, and later became an anchor of downtown.

It closed in 2006 for what was supposed to be a year of renovations. Three years later, then-Mayor Oscar Goodman said the still-shuttered hotel had become a disaster.

On Tuesday afternoon, Goodman raised his trademark martini and toasted the buildings' new incarnation along with his wife, Carolyn Goodman, Las Vegas' current mayor.

"The Lady Luck stood empty and sad for so long. To have a hotel come back revitalized, almost entirely rebuilt and to make such a mark here is simply incredible," Carolyn Goodman said.

Backers say the renovation cost more than $100 million, about what Strip casinos spent to build a single club

CIM Group, which advertises itself as "investing in urban communities," gutted and remade the Lady Luck to conform with downtown's new emphasis on walkability and cohesion. The casino Grand incorporates elements of the two-block neighborhood the city has rebranded the Downtown3rd Entertainment District. Signs on the gambling floor direct visitors to restaurants around the corner, and the casino lies on both sides of Third Street, with an overhead walkway connecting the building's gambling floor and 634 hotel rooms.

The Grand also picks up on the 1920s gangster bar aesthetic that has become trendy in Las Vegas. Visitors can feed slot machines near leather armchairs, lavish chandeliers and lights that recall bare industrial bulbs.

CIM is planning a retail center across the street from the hotel near the Mob Museum, itself a recent addition to the neighborhood.

Much of the revitalization playing out around the Grand has been spurred by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who moved the Internet retailer's suburban headquarters to the old City Hall building one block over from the casino in September.

Hsieh has committed to transforming the derelict heart of the city, pledging $350 million to redevelopment, recruiting young people from the coasts to work for his Downtown Project, and buying up about 20 square blocks of land.

On a recent tour of the area, Hsieh kept up a running commentary on the construction sites that dot the blocks east of the Fremont Experience, describing the parks, schools and small businesses that were on the way, all greenlighted by his 2-year-old organization.

"We're doing something interesting -- large scale art, something, just to get people to walk one more block," said Hsieh.

Over the summer, his project remade the Gold Spike casino down the street from the Grand. Now a non-smoking meeting place for Zappos workers and other downtown dwellers, the Gold Spike has replaced slot machines with whimsical games like the bean bag toss and giant connect four.

The project has also invested in hipster restaurants including the chic diner Eat, the Day of the Dead-themed Mexican restaurant La Comida, and the gluten-free pizza place Wild.

The project expects to open its Container Park in December. The park features shops housed in shipping containers, a shady dome that glows blue and purple at night, and a metal praying mantis from the desert festival Burning Man that shoots 12-foot flames from its head.

Next year, the project expected to open the Inspire Theater on one of the busiest corners of Fremont Street.

Hsieh says the biggest challenge he's faced in remaking downtown is waiting patiently for construction.

"I come from the tech world where I'm used to going from idea to launch in 24 hours," he said






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