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Chris Jones

New Leadership Sure Neonopolis Can Shine

30 March 2004

Just a few weeks shy of its second anniversary, the troubled Neonopolis shopping and entertainment center still looks much as did when it opened on May 3, 2002: a largely desolate space that's plagued by too few businesses drawing far too few customers.

Despite its blemished past, local real estate executive Mark Bouchard still sees promise in the nearly $100 million project that was not long ago hailed as cornerstone of downtown redevelopment. And now he's got a chance to make that potential a reality.

"Every piece of real estate has a story to tell on why it's had the challenges it's had," said Bouchard, whose local CB Richard Ellis brokerage service was last week named as Neonopolis' new management and leasing company. "But this place is in downtown Las Vegas and has a tremendous amount of foot traffic (nearby). ... There's a lot of opportunity there."

Bouchard's optimism stems from his company's international marketing network, which he believes will open Neonopolis to a previously untapped tenant base. He also touted recent management changes at several downtown casinos and last year's nearby debut of the $95 million Las Vegas Premium Outlets as evidence of downtown's development potential.

In slightly less than 23 months of operation, the 250,000-square-foot development at the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard has failed in its prescribed mission to bring hordes of locals and tourists to downtown Las Vegas.

Instead, Neonopolis is best known for its multiple store closures, a city-funded parking garage that cost taxpayers nearly $400,000 during its first year as a for-pay endeavor, as well as several ugly disputes between tenants and management that included allegations that a planned drag-themed nightclub was turned away last year because its owner and primary client base are homosexual.

Bouchard said it's still early to discuss what changes could be in store at Neonopolis, though he hopes to have new tenant announcements within the next two to three months. Instead, a team headed by co-directors Kathy Rose and Jennifer Campbell will target new retailers, restaurants and other tenants that would fit in well with Neonopolis' existing mix that includes a multiscreen movie complex, three bar/restaurants and a few small stores.

"There's a whole world out there that wasn't explored under the old strategic plan," Bouchard said. "We're going to broaden the scope of interest ... to people that may embrace the idea of being in downtown Las Vegas because of the foot traffic."

Bouchard said Neonopolis could possibly add gaming components, though such a move is unlikely because the center was designed to augment, not compete with, nearby casinos.

Prudential Real Estate Investors, which owns Neonopolis, dumped its controversial third-party property management company, New York-based JSS Advisors, in favor of CB Richard Ellis.

JSS had overseen Neonopolis' leasing and on-site operations even before the center's public opening. However, Theresa Miller, spokeswoman for Parsippany, N.J.-based Prudential Real Estate Investors, confirmed Monday that last week's addition of CB Richard Ellis effectively ended JSS' relationship with Neonopolis.

Citing a policy of not discussing individual tenants or business partners, Miller declined to discuss in detail the many criticisms some tenants and local officials leveled at JSS, including charges of nepotism between its top official, Joyce Steves Storm, and her sister, Chardell Steves, who served as Neonopolis' chief local officer from mid-August through January; gay businessman Donald Troxel's discrimination charges; as well as Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's continuing objections to the center's operations, including turning portions of Neonopolis' third floor into office space and JSS' failure to provide timely information about the center's financial performance.

"We're looking at focusing on what we're doing in the future," said Miller, who added Prudential denied Troxel's discrimination claims in a recent letter to Goodman.

Goodman, meanwhile, his pleased with what he called the long overdue management change.

"It's not going to take a brain surgeon to make Neonopolis work. All around it, there's a buzz and a hum. It's a natural to be a success," Goodman said.

Miller also said Marketing Developments, a Cincinnati-based retailing consultant hired last fall to evaluate the mall, recently completed its analysis of Neonopolis, though she declined to discuss its specific findings.

"We've hired a new manager for the property," Miller said when asked about that study. "You're seeing things happening with the property so those are the things that are kind of growing out of the (Marketing Developments' evaluation) process."

Review-Journal writer Hubble Smith contributed to this report.