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Chris Sieroty

Sisters of Fremont Street talk downtown Las Vegas development

12 February 2013

LAS VEGAS -- Whether it's the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Mob Museum, the eclectic Fremont East Entertainment District or the $100 million being poured into the Downtown Grand, investors expect to turn a profit in downtown Las Vegas.

The area's recent renaissance is no coincidence, but a collaborative effort by a group of business owners and investors. And moving ahead, the goal is to continue to diversify the downtown economy by attracting nongaming firms.

Alex Epstein, El Cortez Hotel executive manager, acknowledged the area's gaming business was built out.

"The supply exceeds the demand at this point," she said. "I don't think we'll benefit from any new construction, but at the same time you can't ignore the casinos that are already here. Obviously, it's a vital part of our economy."

(As of Nov. 30, gaming revenue topped $503 million, up 0.54 percent from 2011.)

Downtown Las Vegas is also dependent on attracting new businesses.

The area is home to tech startups, trendy bars and restaurants, marketing firms and is creating a garment district, as $40 million in renovations to the old City Hall continue making way for Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer, to move in.

By some estimates, at least $355 million in developments are under construction and scheduled to be completed this year. Moving ahead, more economic diversity will be crucial to the ongoing growth.

"We are at a critical juncture in terms of moving forward in downtown Las Vegas, not only for the El Cortez, but the entire neighborhood around us," Alex Epstein said.

Katie Epstein, El Cortez vice president and director of guest services, said moving forward, downtown Las Vegas also needs "an expansion of the residential side of the neighborhood."

Katie Epstein and her sister, Alex, laid out their downtown vision in a recent interview with the Las Vegas Business Press.

Question: What's next for downtown Las Vegas?

Alex Epstein: Moving ahead, diversifying our economy is going to be vital. There is a huge push to develop a tech community downtown, and it's not just trying to attract the big firms, it's about attracting startups downtown. Not only will having this new industry here help our economy, but it will also attract new residents and business to locate downtown, which in turn will help the El Cortez and all of the casinos. You can't ignore Zappos and its $50 million tech fund.

Question: Is El Cortez in a position to lead in the redevelopment of downtown?

Alex Epstein: I think along the way we have been in that position. We created the first boutique hotel downtown with the Cabana Suites. That led the way with what a new generation was looking for in downtown Las Vegas. With Emergency Arts, which is a building we own, that's clearly not related to anything we have traditionally done. It's a great way to engage with the community. We are at this juncture where we are figuring out what is going to be best and partner with moving forward.

Question: Katie, you've joined the El Cortez as director of guest services, what is your role with the family business?

Katie Epstein: I started here in August. My first week on the job was doing a four-city tour that included stops in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. It was more or less attending travel agent conventions at which we had our booth set up. It was a way to garner business for the El Cortez. I was there, as a partner in the business, introducing myself to people and building relationships that will bring us business. That was my first week on the job. My role here has been defined by my previous experience at Wynn Resorts. My father (Kenny) had visions of me working at the Wynn learning their service standards and how they do operations, because in our opinion, it's one of the best hotels on the Strip.

Question: Is there anything from Wynn Resorts that has made its way to El Cortez?

Katie Epstein: Above all else, it's the customer service standard they have. The way they treat their guests. Who doesn't like to be treated in that manner? It keeps them coming back, and it really sets them apart from other properties. They go the extra mile to make the (guest) feel valued. At the El Cortez, I'm creating a customer service program to be implemented this year in which I'll train our employees. The Wynn definitely inspired it. We've been in business so long that sometimes training hasn't been our focal point.

Question: Any challenges?

Alex Epstein: We are a 71-year-old business. So we have customers that have been coming here for multiple generations. We have employees who have been here for 30 and 40 years, which is incredible that we have that loyalty, but at the same time there has not been that breath of fresh air. We are used to downtown and how it used to be. We are educating our employees about the change in downtown.

Question: How does a 71-year-old business attract new customers?

Katie Epstein: That sort of defines us. We have our father (Kenny Epstein) who comes from the old Las Vegas and the way businesses were run. Now my sister and I who he has welcomed into the business provide that younger perspective. We know where we would like to spend our time. We know what our friends like.

Question: What do you think downtown Las Vegas needs?

Katie Epstein: Hopefully an expansion of the residential side of the neighborhood. To thrive as a residential neighborhood you need groceries, markets, nail salons and things of that source to make it the really booming community we want it to be.

Alex Epstein: I think restaurants will be huge with that. But I also think a unique destination for even Strip visitors. Downtown is in this constant push-pull trying to figure out if we are (a destination) for locals or for visitors. Who are we trying to attract? The answer is all of the above.

Question: There seems to be separate neighborhoods in downtown Las Vegas. How do you bring them together?

Alex Epstein: Transportation is a big part. Bike lanes are a big part. Bus lanes that connect downtown or even a shuttle ... I think something like that could be really great. We provide a shuttle service on First Friday from the El Cortez and that sees so much traffic. I think something on a regular basis would be great in terms of pushing people around the neighborhood. Providing basis transportations is just as important as having shops fill the neighborhood.

Question: What impact is the Downtown Grand going to have on the region?

Alex Epstein: Overall, it's going to be great for downtown. I think anything that is good for downtown Las Vegas is going to be good for the El Cortez. Having that lot and building vacant for all these years, it has not been good for us and anything is going to be a huge improvement. I know Seth (Schorr) really well and he's committed to downtown. The Grand is going to shine a spotlight on what can be done (here) and he's going to up the ante for us to improve ourselves.