Boom Town: Changing Las Vegas
Art, culture, gaming, and brewpubs bring excitement back to Downtown Las Vegas.
BY RYAN SLATTERY
“If you build it, they will come.”
Lifting a line from the 1989 baseball film classic “Field of Dreams” is fitting when talking about Downtown Las Vegas these days. Especially when it comes to sports-loving Derek Stevens, a Fremont Street titan who in October 2020 opened Circa Resort & Casino, an adults-only resort and the first newly constructed property to be built in Downtown Las Vegas in four decades.
Stevens has a reputation of betting big—both on his casino properties and the games played on the field—so it’s not all that surprising that he calls Circa “a sports book so big we built a casino around it.”
His boast isn’t much of a stretch. Sports viewing takes center stage at Circa. The resort contains a massive three-level sports book with private boxes. But it’s hardly the only place on the property to watch a game in this sports-hungry city. A year-round pool complex called Stadium Swim features a tiered six-pool amphitheater facing a 40-foot-tall high-def screen, and there are televisions seemingly everywhere in the casino, including a large bank of flat screens above the 165-foot Mega Bar, the longest indoor bar in Nevada.
“Whether guests are placing a bet in the book or at the greatest pool in the world, we’ve made a point to modernize the sports experience,” Stevens explains. “We created two of the most unique spots to catch a game in Vegas.”
What Stevens did with Circa was modernize vintage Vegas, while embracing its past. Honoring the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, which he also owns, he brought back the 99-cent shrimp cocktail serving the simple, original 1959 recipe at Saginaw’s Delicatessen, one of the resort’s five restaurants. He also saved Glitter Gulch favorite Vegas Vickie from spending her days in the Neon Boneyard.
“She was ready for some much-needed rest and relaxation,” Stevens jokes of the neon sign of a kicking cowgirl, which now sits over a lounge named after her. “The intent all along was to bring Vickie back. We wanted to respect the history of Las Vegas.”
It wasn’t easy giving the 22-foot-tall Vegas Vickie a complete makeover. The paint was stripped to the bare metal and repainted, all of the neon glass tubing was replaced and her hydraulic leg kick has gone mechanical. Good news for Vickie’s aging 40-year-old joints.
As owner of The D Las Vegas, Golden Gate, and now Circa, Stevens has brought a freshness to the casino experience under the Fremont Street canopy. He introduced outdoor bars, dancing dealers, and created Garage Mahal, a transit hub for ride-sharing companies with dedicated pick-up and drop-off lanes. He’s, in essence, built a Strip-worthy destination resort in the very place where gambling in Las Vegas was born.
Circa is being praised by those running the Fremont Street Experience—which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in December. The Viva Vision Light Show was upgraded within the past year and is now seven times brighter. Circa is seen as another opportunity in attracting people to Fremont Street.
“Circa is a game changer for Downtown,” says Paul McGuire, chief marketing officer for the Fremont Street Experience. “Circa was built to delight and amaze the senses.”
But while the sparkle and shine of Circa garners much of the attention (the new gem stands like a giant beacon over the downtown skyline), Fremont Street isn’t the only neighborhood in “old Las Vegas” that has seen a true transformation.
Over the past decade Downtown Las Vegas has witnessed a rebirth. Artist colonies have popped up and thrived. Beatnik coffee shops, cafes, bars, and thrift stores have opened. Culture arrived when The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Discovery Children’s Museum, Mob Museum, and Neon Museum all debuted in 2012, and locals continue to flock to First Friday for art, music, food, and fun. Las Vegas has created a downtown with character and charm.
Not long ago, a couple years at most, South Main Street was a strip of rundown buildings. Landscaping and infrastructure improvements, including rerouting traffic to make South Main Street a one-way thoroughfare, plus a little TLC has turned a dusty, forgotten street into the latest hotspot for locals, who now gather here to socialize.
Strolling down South Main takes guests past ReBar, a bar inside an antique store where everything from the artwork to the chairs are for sale. Across the street is Velveteen Rabbit, a craft cocktail lounge. A few more steps and patrons arrive at Casa Don Juan where quesadillas, burritos, and enchiladas are paired with tart margaritas. Then there’s the ever-growing brewpub scene in the Arts District with Hop Nuts Brewing, Nevada Brew Works, HUDL Brewing Company, Able Baker Brewing, CraftHaus Brewery, Beer District Brewing, and Three Sheets Craft Beer Bar, all within a half-mile walk of one another.
Mixed among the artist murals and bars on South Main are a number of art galleries, a yoga studio, tattoo parlor, antique stores, and vintage clothing shops with names like Main Street Peddlers, Modern Mantiques, Atomic Style Lounge, and Buffalo Exchange. With the improvements complete, owners of these businesses are seeing increased foot traffic and turning window shoppers into buyers.
“The renovations have restored the old-school charm and glamour of Las Vegas that made it so alluring all those decades ago,” says Tammy Treat, store manager at Buffalo Exchange. “The area is so full of history and art. With an influx of visitors in recent years, the place is buzzing with renewed excitement again. We’re excited to be a part of that.”
For many years there wasn’t much of a reason to venture out from under the Fremont Street Experience canopy. Crossing Las Vegas Boulevard was, to some, a risky endeavor. But when the city carved out a six-block area called the Fremont East Entertainment District, things changed. It’s now a lively scene dotted with bars, a speakeasy, burger joints, pizza parlors, and entertainment venues.
Dan Coughlin, owner of Le Thai, was among the first to take the leap of faith when he opened in 2011.
“Downtown is always the heartbeat of any city, and ours back then was still pretty bare,” Coughlin recalls. “We were always hanging out Downtown at places like The Griffin and Downtown Cocktail Room, and I was like, ‘Man, there’s not a lot of restaurants down here. There needs to be a little bit of food mixed in.’ That’s how it started.”
Being part of Downtown’s resurgence from the get-go was “an easy decision,” says Coughlin, who just opened an Asian-themed restaurant called 8 East inside Circa. “We’ve seen the whole Downtown transformation from the beginning. We want Downtown to become a destination. We want everyone to succeed. This is our home.”
When the late Zappos guru Tony Hsieh founded the Downtown Project in 2012, he promised to move his online retail empire into the old Las Vegas City Hall and infuse $350 million into the blighted city core. There was skepticism on what exactly that meant, but Hsieh shot down critics saying he saw the potential of creating a walkable, “live and play” downtown with a sense of neighborhood and community.
Hsieh’s Downtown Project scooped up roughly 60 acres of land for $200 million and invested millions more in attracting tech startups and small businesses including retail shops, bars, and restaurants. They backed the Life is Beautiful music festival, which saw immediate success attracting big-name acts like The Killers, Foo Fighters, Snoop Dogg, Kacey Musgraves, Duran Duran, and Post Malone, before the pandemic cancelled this year’s festival.
In the years that followed, the Gold Spike casino was turned into an interactive bar and playground for 20-somethings; the quaint Downtown Container Park sprung up with its fire-shooting praying mantis guarding the entrance; and dozens of restaurants and bars such as Commonwealth, Eat, The Smashed Pig, Oak & Ivy, Vanguard Lounge, and VegeNation opened.
Around the same time, Stevens was flipping Fitzgeralds Hotel and Casino into The D Las Vegas, renovations were underway at the Plaza Hotel & Casino, Boyd Gaming was upgrading its downtown properties, and a number of museums opened. Then this past September, Downtown Grand unveiled a new 495-room guest tower.
While there was never a truly organized city-run effort, as a collective the efforts of individuals and visionaries like the Downtown Project, casino operators, restaurateurs, shop owners, artists and creatives of all types helped reshape Downtown Las Vegas.
“A lot of people have been doing things,” explains David Schwartz, gaming historian and UNLV professor. “It’s good to have a viable alternative to The Strip. It’s a huge positive for Las Vegas.”