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Benjamin Spillman

Developer wants to re-brand Neonopolis

3 May 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The name Neonopolis will change but the outlook for the troubled mall remains the same: few tenants, few prospects and an abundance of skepticism about the operators' ability to revive the near-empty property.

Developer Rohit Joshi on Wednesday told the Las Vegas City Council he plans to re-brand Neonopolis as Fremont Square and is in negotiations with four major chains to lure a department store. He said he is in separate talks to attract two radio stations and a television station to the property at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard.

The revelations came as Joshi sought an extension of a subsidy at the city-owned garage beneath the property that allows customers to park for free. The parking is considered an important element to making the mall a viable place to do business.

"Neonopolis as a brand name has not been a very efficient brand name," said William Marion, a public relations consultant who joined Joshi in front of the council.

Marion said the name is an attempt to identify the mall as a link between the Fremont Street Experience, which draws more than 15 million tourists annually, and the nascent Fremont East district, the section of Fremont Street between Las Vegas Boulevard and Eighth Street where city officials provide incentives for business people to open small, locals-oriented bars and clubs.

"It acts as a center for both of them," Marion said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman wasn't impressed: "There's an old saying, 'you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear,'" the mayor quipped. "I don't think you can make Fremont Square out of that."

Despite the skepticism, the council voted unanimously to extend the parking subsidy for the garage 30 days.

Steve van Gorp, redevelopment manager in the city's Office of Business Development, said the agreement allows Joshi to buy parking for $1 an hour, half the market rate, which he passes along to customers who visit the mall.

He also said the structure, opened in 2002, needs to be updated to meet modern consumer tastes for shopping centers.

"It probably needs to be more open to Fremont Street and more inviting to folks to bring them into the project," van Gorp said.

Goodman said eliminating parking privileges for the public would only hurt the mall's few tenants, especially Galaxy Theatres, which operates several movie screens and gets positive reviews from customers.

"The movie theaters are, in fact, outstanding movie theaters," Goodman said. "I don't want to punish them."

Goodman's remarks weren't the first time city officials showed a lack of confidence that Joshi and mall owners Wirrulla Hayward LLC could revive Neonopolis.

In April, city officials talked with representatives of General Growth Properties, a $16 billion mall company based in Chicago, about buying Neonopolis. General Growth declined, leaving Wirrulla Hayward and Joshi in charge of the mall and city officials frustrated with the lack of progress.

"It is iconic," said Goodman of the mall's location at historic Fremont Street and renown Las Vegas Boulevard. "This is a blight," he said of the mall itself.

Although the mall is in private hands, the city has an interest in its success. In addition to owning the parking garage, the city holds an $18 million note on the property that's payable if the mall meets certain revenue goals.

Wirrulla bought the mall last year for $25 million and, through Joshi, has made promises to fill it with tenants. But there has been little progress so far.

After the council meeting Wednesday, Joshi said he appreciates Goodman's frustration.

"We want to do it faster than anybody, of course," Joshi said.

He plans to attend the International Council of Shopping Centers spring convention May 20-23 at the Las Vegas Convention Center to recruit potential tenants.

Goodman said he also plans to attend the event with the stated goal of finding somebody willing to purchase the mall from Joshi's firm.

"I'm going to try to tout you, to be honest," Goodman told Joshi. "Because I want to see you out of there."