The oldest freestanding bar in Vegas is Atomic Liquors, built in 1952, back when you could climb onto the roof and watch atomic bombs explode at desert test sites 60 miles away. If you sit long enough at its expansive bar, chances are Kent Johns will pull up a stool next to you and tell you about it.
Two years ago, Johns bought Atomic Liquors with his brother Lance, and it's become one of many symbols of a revitalized downtown Vegas. Although I can't see his eyes—he's wearing sunglasses, inside, after dark—I know Johns is beaming as he proudly tells me about a recent visit from Anthony Bourdain for his CNN show Parts Unknown. They've even named a drink after him.
To examine the impact of the Downtown Project's $350 million funding injection in transforming the area, I set out to meet the owners of existing, independent businesses, which I'm calling the "Downtown Organic" movement—ideas and places which have grown and thrived independently of the Downtown Project's investments. Not surprisingly, many of them are thrilled about the new attention for the neighborhood.
Anthony Bourdain reporting live from Atomic Liquors was a huge boost to downtown Vegas, image via Droolius
"I've done real estate for 20 years," says Johns, who brought tenants to an office tower in downtown before investing in Atomic Liquors (he lives downtown, too, in the high-rise named The Ogden, like I do this week). "We needed a wildcatter to shake things up."
The "wildcatter" is Tony Hsieh, of course, the Zappos CEO whose vision is driving much of the development in the surrounding blocks. And he might be doing it better than a traditional real estate person, Johns thinks. "A developer would never have been able to do what Tony has done," Johns continues. "He can take risks because he doesn't have to worry about investors."
Atomic Liquors is right on the edge of the Downtown Project's reach, a few blocks further east from the Container Park development. A motel called The Ferguson is being developed by the Downtown Project into mixed-use across the street, and there's a plan for a motel where the "rooms" are Airtream trailers on a nearby lot. Johns showed me how he's making his own improvements in anticipation, adding a large outdoor bar and firepit to complement what might be some of Vegas' best neon signage. "If you build it, they will come, right?" We laugh, and I can't quite tell if he's being sarcastic or not—he's always smiling, and he's still got the sunglasses on—but I think he means it.
Johns' enthusiasm is echoed a few blocks back toward the heart of downtown at the El Cortez, the oldest continuously operating casino in Las Vegas since it opened in 1941. It was purchased in 1963 by Jackie Gaughan—who still lives in the hotel and gambles downstairs at the age of 94—and, in 1975, he sold it to a group of partners including Kenny Epstein, who served as Gaughan's protege for many years. Epstein's daughters, Alex and Katie Epstein are the twenty-something forces bringing new life to the property in a way that complements the Downtown Project vision.
"Tony became an amazing catalyst for taking it from where it was to where it's going now in a much quicker time," says Alex Epstein. "Obviously we're very grateful to him for creating a flutter of excitement here, hiring workers, and cleaning up the area." Over the last few years, this also means that the El Cortez has started to see real changes in their own business. "Our demographic is changing and our customer base is definitely much younger now," says Alex. "We're doing things that are welcoming younger people."
In addition to updating all the rooms in their hotel tower, other changes include converting a hotel across the street into the El Cortez Cabana Suites, a modern, boutique-style property of 64 rooms that attracts that younger crowd. They also organize a monthly food truck festival, Vegas StrEATS, and sponsor the shuttles that run from downtown to the Arts District during the First Friday art walk events.
The stylish new cabana suites occupy a separate building behind the casino. Photo via El Cortez
Although downtown needs some more amenities—a grocery store is supposedly coming soon; the sisters would like a nail salon—the biggest, most positive change can already be seen right outside the El Cortez's doors on Fremont. The sisters are astounded by the increased pedestrian activity, especially when festivals or events are organized. "It is so cool and interesting to see downtown booming and filled to the brim with all kinds of people," says Katie. "This area of town has transformed more or less into the urban core that we want it to be."
If there's anyone who's an expert on the Vegas transformation from a real estate perspective, it's my friend Andy Wang. As a writer he's covered Vegas development and travel for ten years for the New York Post and other publications.
Andy gave me some good, big-picture perspective. "You've seen this whole city transform back and forth a few times now," he told me over breakfast. "It hasn't been a fast process, it's been a slow process." But he did agree with one thing that almost everyone I talked to echoed: Downtown has had serious momentum for at least five years. "Downtown Cocktail Room, The Griffin, and Beauty Bar were all open in 2007," says Wang, listing off three popular bars on Fremont Street. "Tony's not the first pioneer, but he's just the biggest. People have been trying to do this for awhile."
Wang and I met for breakfast at Eat, the cafe which has become part of Downtown Project lore. Chef Natalie Young was unhappy working at a restaurant on the Strip and was planning to leave town when she got a $250,000 loan from the Downtown Project to open her own place. The cafe is tiny and unassuming, on the bottom floor of a motel where rooms rent by the month, but it's well-designed (and has the prerequisite slats of reclaimed wood). We order truffled egg sandwiches and corned beef hash, and it's honestly one of the best breakfasts I've had anywhere on the planet.
This is one of the Downtown Project's biggest success stories—but it's also unique, in the sense that it drew someone off the Strip and into downtown. "I know Tony's been going around offering really great people who work on the Strip really really great deals to open things up here," says Wang. "A lot of them see it as something that has potential and they appreciate that Tony's here, but it's so different." They've lured plenty of startups, but one important indicator for the initiative will be if Hsieh can convince other local businesses owners, maybe even another large corporation like Zappos, to relocate to downtown.
The transcendent Eat is always packed with locals and tourists alike
Soon, Wang will have to make that decision himself. In addition to covering Vegas' changes, Wang is also a potential investor in the city's revitalization—he owns a custom publishing company and is currently looking for office space. But he's not looking at downtown, rather, he's looking at a new (independent) building called Downtown Spaces, just south of the Arts District. "It's really cheap, and I think a lot of people—including those who came to Vegas because of the Downtown Project and then wanted to do their own thing—realize the value of being close to downtown but also removed from it."
The fact that a young entrepreneur that's perfectly situated within the Downtown Project's demographic was choosing not to locate downtown was important. That was my cue to head to the Arts District.