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Chris Jones

Downtown: At Last, a Buyer for Neonopolis

29 March 2006

Neonopolis has apparently found a new owner.

The $100 million Fremont Street retail center has been all but empty and on the market since May 2004, a victim of poor foot traffic and other troubles too numerous to mention.

But sources said local businessman Rohit Joshi sees promise in others' failure, and his group is willing to risk an undisclosed sum for the chance to turn things around. That vision does not depart from the project's current urban retail and entertainment concept.

Theresa Miller, a spokeswoman with Prudential Real Estate Investors, on Tuesday confirmed that her company has reached an agreement to sell the 250,000-square-foot shopping center.

A contractual confidentiality clause kept her from identifying the buyer, the sales price or the buyer's plans for the venue until the deal closes escrow.

Reached Tuesday, Joshi also declined comment.

But Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, ever the cheerleader for downtown redevelopment, was more forthcoming.

He said Joshi is the intended buyer's representative, adding the two men will meet Monday at Goodman's office to discuss Joshi's plans face to face.

"Number one, I want to make sure it's a go," Goodman said. "Second, we've got a wonderful jigsaw puzzle downtown. I want to be sure (Joshi's) use will be compatible with everything around it."

Goodman said he hopes likely changes at Neonopolis will complement new developments around the mall, such as Hennessey's and Mickey Finnz restaurants at 425 Fremont St., and the Triple George Grill restaurant and Hogs & Heifers bar on Third Street near the Lady Luck.

A large, nonrefundable deposit has been made on the Neonopolis property, which Goodman called "good news, since there's been a lot of talk but sometimes no action."

The sale must still be approved by the city, which invested $32 million to build the center's underground parking garage. Miller said she didn't know when the sale will close.

Neonopolis' anchors include Jillian's, a bowling-themed arcade, bar and restaurant, and a Crown Theatres cineplex.

Parsippany, N.J.-based Prudential Real Estate Investors put the then 2-year-old center up for sale in May 2004 rather than try to fix its myriad problems.

Local representatives of CB Richard Ellis brokerage service spent 22 months working to sell the property once hailed as the key to downtown's redevelopment.

After nearly two years of quiet, Neonopolis again made headlines last week when the Review-Journal reported that Fox Sports Net wants to convert three of the center's 14 movie theaters into viewing areas for televised poker tournaments.

Gaming regulators, who must sign off on such a change, met privately late Tuesday with representatives of Fox to discuss the proposed events. Details of that discussion were unavailable at press time.

Joshi & Associates was linked to Neonopolis as lately as November 2004, and was more recently tied to the proposed purchase of the North Las Vegas Housing Authority's failed Desert Mesa project, a 123-home low-income residential development at Carey Avenue and Commerce Street.

The authority wanted to rezone the 28-acre site to allow the company to build a 226-unit residential development. But that application was withdrawn in January and remains in limbo.

A 2003 Las Vegas Sun story linked Joshi to Vallejo, Calif.-based Touro University's failed effort to buy Cashman Center from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The osteopathic medical college instead located in Henderson.

Neonopolis has known troubles since plans for the project became public in December 1997.

Years before it opened, a controversy raged over the city's use of eminent domain powers to obtain land for the nearby Fremont Street Experience parking garage.

That move, whose effects Goodman later called "a curse upon the city," two years ago forced Las Vegas into a $4.5 million settlement with the Pappas family, whose property was seized back in 1993.

In 1998, city officials filed eminent domain lawsuits against the owners of two other downtown businesses that initially refused to make way for Neonopolis; settlements eventually were reached with both parties.

In 1999, WestStar Cinemas, the parent company of Mann Theatres, filed for bankruptcy protection and temporarily left Neonopolis without an anchor tenant.

The center's opening date, originally set for November 2000, was pushed back several times. Soon after the mall opened May 3, 2002, tenant after tenant fled.

In 2003, Goodman blasted a decision to convert some space to office use, while several tenants railed that the center's former third-party management company, New York-based JSS Advisors, was engaged in questionable business practices including nepotism and absentee management.

One tenant was accused of allowing the homeless to sleep in her store. The mall's for-pay parking garage has been a cash drain on the city.

Neonopolis' biggest controversy came in 2003 when a gay Ohio businessman claimed that Prudential and JSS Advisors kicked out his proposed nightclub because it would cater primarily to homosexual customers.

Both companies denied those allegations, though JSS Advisors' contract to oversee Neonopolis was canceled just weeks after the incident went public. Last year, Prudential paid businessman Don Troxel an undisclosed settlement to end his discrimination lawsuit.

Troxel would not disclose the settlement's exact amount, but he hinted it was more than $200,000. His Celebrity Las Vegas nightclub opened, and quickly failed, last summer at nearby Third Street and Ogden Avenue.

Since the mall was listed for sale 22 months ago, several unidentified bidders toyed with a purchase before ultimately backing away.