Right Place, Wrong Time

The owner of a pioneering Fremont Street venue recalls his expensive lesson in nightclub economics

Since the creation of the Fremont East entertainment district in 2002, city officials have gone to great lengths to rebrand the area as a hip and trendy pedestrian zone with cafés, clubs, bars and restaurants. In 2007, the city allotted $5.5 million for wider sidewalks and 40-foot-tall neon signs, and the Las Vegas City Council in September approved an $80,000 contract to better market the district.

While the efforts to revitalize Fremont East have met with mixed results to date, there is little doubt that the overall perception of the area has changed. Locales such as the Beauty Bar, the Griffin and the Downtown Cocktail Room have become chic hot spots to meet for drinks; and the Vanguard Lounge, Maharaja Hookah Café and Azul Tequila nightclub all were added to the mix in September. Even the creaky El Cortez hotel-casino, once the poster child of downtown Las Vegas’ seedy reputation, has seen a significant upgrade in decor and image.

These are all developments that came about 15 years too late for Terry O’Halloran, who was apparently ahead of his time when he opened the Fremont Street Reggae & Blues club in January 1993. The club, which had two 400-person capacity rooms, featured both live blues and reggae acts seven nights a week, yet it shut its doors in October 1996 because of lukewarm support. “I didn’t realize locals had a resistance to going downtown,” O’Halloran says. “When I used to visit there, I thought the downtown was cool, that it was old Vegas.

“I got an education for about what it would cost to go to Harvard Business School. I learned a lot in my time there.”

The club was critically acclaimed, even being named the city’s best blues club by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1994. It attracted blues artists such as Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Tommy Castro, along with reggae acts such as Burning Spear, Toots & the Maytals and Pato Banton.

One major obstacle that hindered the club was the Fremont Street Experience, which was being developed when it was in business. An 8-foot chain-link fence encircled the entrance of Fremont Reggae & Blues during its first year because of construction of the canopy.

O’Halloran, who was 34 when he opened Fremont Street Reggae & Blues, split his time between Las Vegas and his native Omaha, Neb., while operating the club. He figured out quickly that he was fighting a losing battle here.

“After about a year and a half I was about out of bullets and starting to scramble on how I was going to pay the rent,” he says. “I still had clubs in Omaha and was taking all their profits and sinking them into paying the bills in Vegas. So for about the last year and a half, I was just looking for an exit strategy and trying to sell my lease.”

He finally sold his lease to a drugstore, which never opened. And the city, which offered him no assistance, put its redevelopment efforts behind the $99 million, 250,000-square-foot Neonopolis entertainment complex, a colossal bust that now sits largely vacant at the former site of Fremont Street Reggae & Blues.

Concert promoter A.J. Gross has lived in Las Vegas for 26 years and was the in-house promoter for Fremont Reggae & Blues during its brief run. He believes that downtown could have launched a vital music scene if the canopy for the Fremont Street Experience hadn’t been built and Fremont Street had remained open to vehicle traffic.

Even if that had happened, though, Gross says trying to operate an independent live-music club was like fighting Goliath on a daily basis.

“Something I learned after Fremont Street is you can’t compete in this market as a music promoter against hotel-casinos doing their own thing,” he says. “They’re going to take everything that makes sense, they’re going to pay them way more than we can pay them, and I just don’t see how the numbers can add up.”

Gross says Fremont Reggae & Blues always did good business on weekends, but that wasn’t enough to sustain its long-term survival.

“As a business, you can’t make it off of two days a week,” he says. “And no matter how much we lowered our overhead, we just could not make those other days of the week really pop. I doubt that the place could have survived unless we somehow came up some with something really magical.”

O’Halloran, who returned to Omaha for good once he sold Fremont Reggae & Blues, says his time in Las Vegas was an eye-opening experience. “In retrospect, I feel like I was naïve thinking I could compete with the casinos and their million-dollar budgets. At the time, all of California was moving to Vegas, and I thought, ‘Those people need a music club.’”

He now lives in downtown Omaha, and owns and operates the New Lift Lounge, where he has live music about once a week.

“I don’t know that I’d ever open another live music club,” he says. “It’s just not feasible to have a full-time music club anymore.”

Gross does have a suggestion for sparking a change in the Fremont East district, backing an idea that Mayor Oscar Goodman floated in 2003.

“If Oscar could get them to make downtown the red-light district of America, downtown would never have to worry about making another dollar again. Let Oscar run wild with his idea, and downtown would be just fine.”

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