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Benjamin Spillman

Neonopolis takes another hit as Poker Dome opts to fold

18 June 2007

Operators of a televised poker venue dealt downtown Las Vegas a bad hand this week when they revealed plans to pull their stake out of the near-empty Neonopolis mall.

The Poker Dome venue will fold by the end of the summer, meaning no more nationally televised high-stakes poker matches, which had been the most prominent aspect of the troubled Fremont Street mall.

The news only raises the odds against a quick revival for the city-subsidized Neonopolis mall, a shopping center that is down to two visible tenants despite its location at the intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard.

After the defection, Neonopolis developer Rohit Joshi and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman characterized it as an opportunity for the mall to add more movie screens as Galaxy Theatres is one of the few tenants to survive in the property. But both were disappointed to see the Poker Dome depart.

"I feel like I'm a Neonopolis-basher, which I don't want to be," said Goodman, who has openly sought buyers willing to purchase the mall from Joshi's ownership group, Wirrulla Hayward. "But I am certainly not happy."

News of the pending departure comes less than a year after the Poker Dome opened to great fanfare July 28. Poker Dome operators Hollybrook Regency opened it as a flashy venue for Poker Dome Challenge, an event with a $1 million prize televised on FOX Sports Net.

Not only did the Poker Dome provide a gambling-themed look and feel that complemented its Las Vegas location, it gave the Fremont Street mall a presence on national television.

Hollybrook President Rick Kulis did not return calls to comment.

Joshi said he didn't oppose the departure and he hoped Neonopolis could retain some of the equipment and lighting to make the stage viable for possible future events.

"It is a very, very expensive stage that could be used for other venues," Joshi said. "Why take it out?"

He said off-stage areas used for production and control of the televised matches could be converted for use as movie theaters, which would bring the number of screens at Neonopolis to 13.

Frank Rimkus, chairman of Sherman Oaks-based Galaxy Theatres, declined to comment on the possibility and referred all questions to Joshi.

City officials want to see Neonopolis transform from a retail black hole to a trendy festival marketplace-style development that would link the tourist-friendly Fremont Street Experience to an up-and-coming entertainment district featuring small live music venues and hipster bars.

Success would not only mean life at what should be a bustling corner of downtown, it would also improve the odds of the city recouping an $18 million note on the property payable if it reaches performance goals.

But so far Joshi's group has been unable to secure tenants despite a subsidy that allows Neonopolis customers to park for free in a city-owned garage beneath the mall. The most significant suggestion the Joshi group has made publicly was an idea to change the name to Fremont Square.

Former Mayor Jan Jones was in office when Neonopolis opened, and she disagrees with critics who say the mall has trouble because it is imposing and doesn't welcome foot traffic.

She said the problem is the Fremont Street canopy doesn't extend past fourth street to the intersection with the mall.

"People stop at the end of the covering," Jones said of the canopy, which the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimates attracts as many as 15 million tourists annually.

Review-Journal writer Arnold M. Knightly contributed to this report.