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Howard Stutz

Downtown Las Vegas ready for transformation

9 January 2012

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Downtown Las Vegas needs more than just a steakhouse named for former Mayor Oscar Goodman if the market is going to rebound following gaming revenue declines in five of the last six years.

That extra help is on the way.

2012 is a transition year for downtown, in advance of online retailer Zappos' 2013 relocation of some 1,000 employees into the soon-to-be reconfigured former City Hall, providing a new source of business.

The market also awaits redevelopment of the shuttered Lady Luck, a remodeling of Fitzgeralds Casino & Hotel, and a $12 million expansion of the already-renovated Golden Gate Hotel & Casino. The $502 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts opens in the spring.

Meanwhile, downtown's prospects rely on locals, tourists drawn to the 2,345-room Golden Nugget, and an endless supply of the Hawaiian customer base drawn to the three downtown casinos owned by Boyd Gaming Corp.

It seems to have worked.

Through October, downtown gaming revenues are up 1 percent compared with a year earlier, thanks partly to a nearly 2 percent jump in slot machine revenues on slightly lower volumes.

In 2010, downtown casinos recorded $493.4 million in gaming revenues, the lowest total in 22 years. The high point was 1992, when downtown casinos collected $703.1 million in gaming revenues.

Downtown once accounted for 12 percent of Nevada's overall gaming revenues. Last year, it contributed less than 5 percent of the statewide total.

But if business in November and December was as bountiful as analysts think, downtown will record its first gaming revenue increase since a 0.5 percent jump in 2007.

"This comes as a surprise considering the market has experienced three consecutive yearly declines and has been operating the entire year without the Plaza, due to its now-completed remodel," Gaming Control Board Senior Research Analyst Michael Lawton said.

The Plaza Hotel and Casino, on Main Street, is key to the revival.

Plaza owner Tamares Las Vegas Properties brought in Tony Santo, who has nearly three decades of gaming experience, to operate the hotel-casino.

Roughly $20 million was spent to renovate the Plaza's 1,000 rooms, upgrade public areas, and refurbish the 80,000-square-foot casino with a modern design and 800 new slot machines. Restaurants were added, including Hash House A Go Go and Oscar's Beef, Booze, Broads.

The relationship between Goodman and the Plaza is ironic. The three-term former mayor often said he wanted to demolish the Plaza to connect Fremont Street and Union Park, the 61-acre focal point of his downtown redevelopment plans.

Goodman, who in June ceded mayoral duties to his wife, Carolyn, leased his name and likeness to Santos' Play LV for the restaurant.

The ex-mayor's new perch is front-and-center in the 120-seat glass-domed restaurant that overlooks Fremont Street. The space previously housed the Firefly tapas restaurant. Before that, the dome was the Center Stage Restaurant. Conveniently, a scene in the 1995 movie "Casino," in which former mob lawyer Goodman portrayed himself, was filmed there.

Oscar's is a shrine to Goodman and his two careers; mob lawyer and mayor. Photos of Goodman with politicians, celebrities, and his infamous clients adorn the walls. A small office behind the bar contains additional memorabilia, Goodman's desk and mayoral throne hauled over from City Hall.

Items on the Oscar's menu are named for his former clients, some of whom are no longer able to sample the fare due to being dead. Others are listed in Nevada's Black Book of people excluded by gaming regulators, so they can't enter a casino.

Big questions remain. Is the average Fremont Street visitor willing to cross Main Street to view Goodman's personal museum and dine on Fat Herbie's seared tuna, Lefty's lobster tail or the Spilotro-style skirt steak?

Will they also gamble a few dollars in the Plaza's casino?

Oscar's menu, for the most part, does not have typical downtown value prices. Fremont Street customers are more akin to Du-par's, the 24-hour diner at the Golden Gate.

The Plaza did add Island Sushi and Hawaiian Grill as a nod to the Boyd casinos clientele. The Plaza plans other amenities.

Goodman loves downtown and wants his restaurant to lead the revival.

So how is the food at Oscar's? I won't turn Heidi Knapp Rinella on you, but Johnny Quinn's crab cake, Oscar's chopped salad (with Carolyn's Russian dressing) and the 6-ounce Joey C's fillet were satisfying.

On a late December weeknight, Fremont Street was packed with visitors drawn by the pre-New Year's Eve celebration and free concerts. The action spilled into neighboring casinos. That's the future downtown gaming operators envision.
Downtown Las Vegas ready for transformation is republished from