The Experience of Fremont

Fremont Street and the downtown casinos might be on the verge of a renaissance. Several casinos have reinvented themselves with renovations and expansions that try to blend nostalgia, modern comforts and value. But this isn’t the first time downtown has reinvented itself. In the 1950s, it tried emulating the Strip by replacing its rough-hewn gambling halls with hotel-casinos. More recently, in 1995, the Fremont Street Experience transformed downtown; in many ways, the casino district is only now growing into that change.

First, some numbers. Yes, there’s been a great deal of talk about downtown’s pending revitalization. And, yes, last year saw the area increase its gaming revenues for the first time since 2007. But between 1992 and 2011, casino revenue dipped by more than $200 million, a decline of almost 30 percent.

What happened? The Strip entered the megaresort era. Competition from California and Arizona tribal casinos—drawing the same value-oriented customers downtown has always chased—heated up. And neighborhood casinos popped up everywhere.

But downtown was not passive in the face of these changes—in the early 1990s, the players with the most skin in the downtown game looked into the future and saw that they’d have to make some major changes. The result was the Fremont Street Experience.

In a recent interview, Golden Gate co-owner Mark Brandenburg detailed the process that changed Fremont. Everyone knew there was a problem: Guests were complaining that downtown was dirty, that they didn’t feel safe walking around outside. The Strip was developing must-see attractions, starting with The Mirage’s volcano; downtown had none. So the owners got together and resolved to set things right.

It’s fascinating to look at who was around the table with Brandenburg, trying to find a way forward for Glitter Gulch: a barely post-Mirage Steve Wynn, still committed to downtown; Jackie Gaughan, still majority owner of the Plaza, Las Vegas Club, El Cortez and Western; Bill Boyd, whose father, Sam, was still alive, and whose company had yet to go public; Jack Binion, whose father, Benny, had died a few short years ago, and who had been running the Horseshoe for for decades before that. That was a lot of Las Vegas talent trying to figure out how to make downtown stay relevant in the city that one of them was helping to create.

They considered all ideas, no matter how out of this world. One of them, a planned 23-story USS Enterprise hotel (that’s Captain Kirk’s Star Trek ship, not one of the eight U.S. Navy vessels to bear the name) died, according to Brandenburg, largely because of Wynn’s opposition. Wynn’s own plan, which involved artificial waterways and was dubbed “Las Venice,” didn’t get much further, thanks to its prohibitive cost.

After much discussion, those casino titans settled on the Fremont Street Experience, which they thought would clean up the street, make it feel safer and, in Brandenburg’s words, “give us our own volcano in the form of this four-block-long, 10-story-tall light show.” The new attraction debuted in 1995.

Safety, comfort and a can’t-miss attraction: the Fremont Street Experience “solved” what everyone in Las Vegas thought were the biggest problems facing downtown. But it couldn’t address the bigger problems of broader local and regional competition facing downtown in the 1990s, just like it can’t do much about the deflated gaming economy today.

Even though the numbers might say otherwise, the Experience is a success: It let Fremont Street stay in the game long enough to find its way again. And it’s getting better: Over the past two years, increased focus on staging concerts under the canopy, combined with attractions as varied as the zip-line and the Mob Museum, have kept Fremont Street relevant.

Better yet, if the Strip recovers, prices there will go up, making downtown an even better bargain play.

Still, treading water’s not enough. As downtown seeks to morph into a mash-up of Bourbon Street and Silicon Valley, everyone from Derek Stevens to Tony Hsieh has a vision for the future. It’s not likely they’re solving the same problems or even sitting around the same table, which means that the next 20 years are going to be interesting ones for downtown.