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Chris Jones

Light Show: Bright Night on Fremont Street

15 June 2004

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but with apologies to singer George Benson, New York's most-bedazzling thoroughfare had nothing on Fremont Street on Monday evening.

That's when an estimated crowd of 800 invited guests and hundreds of bystanders gathered in downtown Las Vegas to attend the public unveiling of "Viva Vision," the $17 million Fremont Street Experience canopy upgrade civic officials and business leaders hope will re-energize downtown tourism.

"It's hard to believe," said Charles Czerwonka of Doniphan, Mo., after he watched one of two new light shows shown Monday. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been here to see it."

Czerwonka's wife, Brenda, waited more than three hours to secure a good spot to see Las Vegas' newest attraction. And while many in the crowd poked fun at the elongated heads of some subjects shown on the overhead display, she too was impressed by the Viva Vision experience.

"It's beautiful," Brenda Czerwonka said. "I've never seen anything in the world like it."

While overhead entertainment remains the Experience's signature element, the attraction's most significant change involves a new electronic lighting system installed beneath its four-block-long canopy.

Over the past several months, workers have replaced nearly 2 million incandescent light bulbs with approximately 12.5 million light-emitting diode lamps. The new lamps are capable of displaying images nearly 900 percent clearer than their predecessors' output, resulting in a picture quality that's comparable to a high-definition television screen located 90 feet above the sidewalk.

"I think we're just barely on the cusp of finding out what kind of capabilities this gives us," Joe Schillaci, Fremont Street Experience president and chief executive, said Monday of the system designed by electronics manufacturer LG. "The other day, just for fun, we hooked up an X-box video game and it looked great up on the canopy.

"Right now we're focused on the plans before us, but I think we'll have some great opportunities for some new and innovative kinds of entertainment down here."

Others also agree, and have demonstrated that faith with their checkbooks. Seoul, South Korea-based LG agreed to pay $2.25 million in sponsorship fees for the rights to showcase its products before Fremont Street's more than 16 million estimated annual visitors.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in late 2002 committed $7 million toward the project's budget, with the remaining $7.75 million paid for by the owners of the 10 downtown hotel-casinos that make up the Fremont Street Experience holding company.

Such investment has been deemed critical to the future of downtown Las Vegas, where visitor volume last year dipped to less than 16.4 million from a peak of 21.3 million reported in both 1996 and 1997.

"Downtown had a tendency to get a little stale; you need to spend capital to keep this area fresh, and I think that's starting to happen," said Tim Poster, who with partner Tom Breitling recently purchased downtown's Golden Nugget and a sister property in Laughlin from MGM Mirage for $215 million.

In many ways, the optimism surrounding Monday's premiere mirrored thoughts expressed when the original Fremont Street Experience came online nearly a decade ago.

After city officials and business leaders in 1993 approved plans to close Fremont Street to automobile traffic and erect the lighted canopy and pedestrian mall, many hoped the nearly $70 million project would quickly reverse the sagging fortunes of nearby businesses.

At the Experience's grand opening party Dec. 13, 1995, then-Golden Nugget owner Steve Wynn expressed hope the changes would help downtown "to become fun again," while then-Fitzgerald's President Jerry Turk said he'd be "very disappointed" if the canopy didn't spark a rush of downtown redevelopment within six months of its debut.

Former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones even credited the Experience for inspiring a Texas-based investment group's announced plans to build an 85,000-seat stadium on vacant land just west of Main Street.

Nearly nine years later, downtown redevelopment remains a work in progress ranging from the unsuccessful (the mythical stadium proposal, Neonopolis) to the promising (the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, $1 billion World Market Center now under construction, new ownership at several downtown properties).

Despite those mixed results, the Experience's proponents remain convinced the most significant of those 9-year-old goals -- the desire to make downtown a fun place to visit -- has been realized.

"I'd hate to think about what downtown Las Vegas would be like if it hadn't been for the Fremont Street Experience," said Don Snyder, who is president of Boyd Gaming Corp. and chairman of the Fremont Street Experience board.

"Even if Neonopolis hasn't been as successful as people would have liked, what (downtown) is today is a helluva lot better than what was there 10 years ago."

Coupled with 10 new high-tech computers and a 550,000-watt audio system, the Experience's updated backbone will initially power two new six-minute video shows designed specifically for the improved technology. The first offering, titled "The Drop," depicts a psychedelic underwater journey, while "Area 51" shifts from tranquil space scenes to a battle between aliens and humans that spans the length of the canopy.

Those shows were followed by the broadcast premiere of Fox television's new reality program "The Casino," which profiles Poster and Breitling's initial weeks as casino owners.