Vegas: From Sin City to Arts Haven

Downtown revitalization signals a new pride and cultural focus for a metropolis synonymous with excess

Stardust Neon Museum

Las Vegas is undergoing a renaissance, but not one associated with the theme-park-scaled hotels and casinos that dot the southern end of the Strip, which is technically not part of the city proper.

An effort to revitalize Downtown, previously a seedy, low-rent district characterized by $2 blackjack casinos and dive bars, is being aided by hundreds of millions of dollars from the city and private donors. The area includes Symphony Park, a former dilapidated railroad yard where the Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened last year, the long-neglected Fremont Street Experience, which seems to be catching a second wind, and East Fremont, home to the city’s burgeoning arts district where restaurants, bars, art galleries and antique shops are popping up with the frequency of brew pubs and organic eateries in L.A.’s Silverlake, a hipster zone that Downtown Las Vegas seems to be emulating.

The prevailing mantra might be something like “Give Las Vegas Back to the Natives,” but that would undermine the huge role that tourism continues to play in the city. What people such as Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh — whose Downtown Project is pumping $350 million into small businesses, real estate, cultural revival and, most importantly, a sense of community — are trying to destigmatize is the notion of Vegas as solely a repository of high rollers and forbidden fruit.

“The Strip is focused on tourists and the Downtown Project is focused on locals and community,” Hsieh says. “So in a lot of ways, it’s actually the opposite of what most tourists think Las Vegas is about.”

Joey Vanas, the lead organizer of First Friday, a monthly street fair in the arts district, adds that what prominent locals like Hsieh have wrought so far is “just scratching the surface in terms of general awareness that there is more (to Vegas) than gambling and strip clubs and overpriced meals.”

Vanas — who’s spearheading a drive to restore Downtown’s Huntridge Theater, an abandoned structure that was built in 1944, into an alternative music and cinema showcase — says the parallels to Silver Lake and places like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are not unfounded.

“There are a lot of transplants who were in Silver Lake 10 years ago, or some of these (Bohemian enclaves) as they developed, and I think there are a lot of people who really seek out and enjoy that type of environment. It might feel a little bit sketchy, but (Downtown) has potential and you see the growth and the evolution.”

Cara Clarke, senior director of communications for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber, points out that much of what’s happening Downtown was initiated by flamboyant former mayor Oscar Goodman (Carolyn’s husband), who designated East Fremont as an entertainment district that afforded start-ups special consideration like tax credits and licensing easements. That Nevada does not impose income taxes on business or personal income certainly works in enterprise’s favor.

Clarke calls Hsieh’s $350 million investment a “game changer.” “It’s not only a huge amount of money to invest, but also opening new businesses, renovating buildings, creating public spaces, changing how people connect and operate and live and work Downtown — all that has brought other investment into the Downtown core.”

The current mayor, for her part, has expressed a renewed interest in attracting more film production — an industry, in her mind, that was given a boost dating back to Martin Scor-sese’s “Casino” (1995), which shot locally and underscored the wealth of below-the-line talent that works in Vegas, from lighting technicians to makeup artists to costume designers.

Carolyn Goodman, who assumed office in July 2011, traveled to Carson City in May with actor Nicolas Cage, who owns a home in Vegas, and together they pressed state lawmakers to pass a film tax incentive bill. “We were able to persuade the governor and the legislature to issue tax credits because tax credits are a draw to the film industry,” says Goodman.

Brent Montgomery, CEO of Leftfield Entertainment, the company behind the hit reality show “Pawn Stars,” which shoots in Downtown, says the show and its two offshoots, “American Restoration” and “Counting Cars” use a mix of out-of-state crews and locals. But the favorable tax laws and real estate deals have attracted more talent to stick around. “I’ve sent people out for a six-week shoot and they’ve stayed for four years,” Montgomery says. “We’ve been very pleased by the local crews. That’s one place where the locals are on par with L.A. or New York crews.”

Goodman, who is also keen on bringing an NBA franchise into the city, takes pride in what she calls “the largest gay and lesbian nightclub in the world” in the Fremont district, the 80,000-sq.-ft. Krave Massive, which was actually shut down recently by state officials due to unspecified permit issues. “It’s on a pause right now,” she says, but sees the club’s existence as a sign of the progressive mind set not normally associated with Las Vegas.

“I think Downtown has really established itself as a fun alternative to the Strip,” says Montgomery.

Christina Dylag, co-owner of the Velveteen Rabbit, an artisan cocktail lounge, says she lives two blocks away from her bar just south of the Arts District, “which wouldn’t have been possible two years ago.”

“It was a sketchy area in the past,” she adds. “We’re starting this mini-revolution in the area. We’re definitely moving towards something greater and it hasn’t reached that point yet — its point of clarity, of complete innovation. But I think everyone recognizes it’s moving in that direction.”