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Benjamin Spillman
 

Luck be a lady: Revival of Third Street planned

19 September 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Owners of the shuttered and gutted Lady Luck in downtown Las Vegas want to leverage the Fremont Street Experience as part of a plan to revive Third Street with new retail and entertainment venues and as many as three new hotel towers.

Reports from CIM Group to Las Vegas city officials indicate the California developers have big plans to transform the quiet side street into "a new urban destination."

Downtown business owners say representatives from the Lady Luck group have already inquired about buying buildings on the east side of the pedestrian plaza between Ogden Avenue and the lighted canopy that entertains tourists strolling between Fremont Street casinos.

Control of the property adjacent to the canopy could help Hollywood-based CIM Group strengthen the link between the Lady Luck and Fremont Street, an attraction that draws an estimated 17 million to 22 million visitors annually.

A representative from CIM Group did not respond to a request for comment. City officials wouldn't acknowledge whether they were aware of any purchase offers. But linking Fremont Street to the old post office on Stewart Avenue and Third that's being converted into a mob museum has been an oft-stated goal of the city's efforts to breathe more life into downtown.

Reports from CIM to the city contain a broad outline of the firm's vision for downtown that includes "a pedestrian-oriented retail and entertainment armature" between Fremont Street and Stewart Avenue. The reports also suggest the possibility of new hotel towers and a long-range circulation and parking plan that could accommodate "a larger hotel and casino operation."

Lloyd George, a longtime federal judge and part-owner of one of the buildings on Third Street, said representatives of the Lady Luck project approached him about a month ago or longer with an offer to buy his property in the corridor between Fremont and Stewart.

"It was an offer certainly worth looking at," said George, one of several owners of a building that is home to a beef-jerky store, a gem and jewelry store and a luggage store. "It is being considered by the group."

Owners of two gift shop buildings, one on each side of George's building, were unavailable for comment by deadline.

But the prospect of a coordinated effort to draw more people down Third Street and broaden what's available in downtown Las Vegas beyond value-oriented hotel-casinoss and souvenir shops has businesspeople in the area talking, even if they question whether the upscale retail strategy CIM used to revive downtrodden neighborhoods in Los Angeles would work in the shadow of the Strip.

Steve Nitura, owner of the master lease in George's building, said value gambling and cheap beer are among the amenities that attract people to downtown Las Vegas. He's not sure visitors would accept a redevelopment project with an upscale emphasis.

"All of us exist because of the casinos," said Nitura, whose daughter operates the beef-jerky store that also sells Hawaiian delicacies. "The faster we learn that, the better. Downtown should be honky-tonk.

"The electricians, the carpenters, those are the kind of guys we want to have downtown. The other guys can go up to the Strip," he added.

The Lady Luck has been symbolic of the challenges facing people who want to revive downtown since it was purchased in 2005 by a company led by Andrew Donner of Las Vegas and closed in early 2006.

The closure displaced about 700 employees and shuttered several hundred hotel rooms and a casino that attracted people beyond the Fremont canopy. At the time Donner said it would reopen within a year. By the time CIM entered the picture in June the hotel had been closed 16 months and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman had referred to it as "a carcass outside my window."

Since CIM bought into the project, however, the mood surrounding its prospects has changed considerably.

In a recent progress report to city officials John Given of CIM Group said the firm would be ready to release design documents by Nov. 1, well ahead of an earlier pace set forth in a previous timetable. Given also wrote the firm is seeking a casino operator for the project and added: "We have narrowed down our list to a few operators that share and can implement our vision for downtown Las Vegas."

The mere presence of CIM, which boasts a $4 billion urban real estate portfolio and backing from the California Public Employees' Retirement System, called CalPERS, is now cited as evidence there is great economic potential to be tapped downtown.

"It is their history to not look at individual properties but their role in the community," said Jeff Victor, president of the Fremont Street Experience. "Big partners like that are important to our objective."

Victor said he recently met with representatives from CIM who wanted to introduce themselves and talk about how the canopy and redevelopment along Third Street could complement each other.

"The connection is very logical," Victor said. "We are kind of a gateway to their property."

Warren Montney, 40, of Richland, Wash., has fond memories of trips to the Lady Luck for cheap food and $2 blackjack.

Montney said he hopes the new owners revive the value and charm that has attracted generations of customers to downtown casinos.

"If they try and do upscale and do a lot of retail, they will probably flop," said Montney, who said he used to live in Las Vegas and now visits about twice a year. "I think they should go back to the old-school system of making everybody feel welcome and feed everyone who walks in the door."