Roll of the dice on Las Vegas’s shabby downtown

Las Vegas: Travel north on the Strip, past the glittering islands of the Bellagio, Excalibur, Venetian and other resorts, and — keep going — it finally appears like a worn-out showgirl at the end of a parade: downtown.

Here, Binion’s, Main Street Station, Four Queens and other casinos — „vintage Las Vegas,“ as downtown’s promoters like to call it — beckon the budget-conscious amid wedding chapels, older bars, check-cashing stores and a few newer attractions like an outlet mall.

But Mayor Oscar Goodman of Las Vegas is determined to give the area a face-lift, and not even a recession will stand in his way. Let the rest of municipal America tighten belts and hunker down. Goodman, a former mob lawyer whose outsize personality leads him to offer poker chips as business cards, says it is time for the city to join forces with private developers for a project he promotes as a linchpin to downtown’s revival.

The project would include a new city hall (never mind that the existing one, built in 1973, has an addition only six years old), a casino resort (the first in downtown in some three decades) and office, residential and commercial space (because, the developers of this project assert, the eventual economic recovery will create demand for it).

The plan includes a complicated land swap and a lease-back arrangement — „a college football parlay card, in which everything has to fall into place,“ The Las Vegas Review-Journal said in an editorial. For taxpayers, the bottom line could mean borrowing USD 150 million to USD 267 million, with tax revenue from new development paying it back over time.

Goodman insists that the project is a sure bet, even as other large developments on the Strip and elsewhere are being scaled back or postponed.

„I think we would be cheating our future if we stopped projects because of tough economic times,“ Goodman said. „During the Great Depression, three buildings were built in New York City: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center.“

Goodman’s chutzpah has long received notice even in a town where over-the-top is the norm. He thought little of suggesting that federal stimulus dollars help finance a planned museum — downtown, of course — commemorating the mob’s role in building up Las Vegas. (After Washington whacked the idea, he said he wanted to use city money earmarked for sewers.)

But while the city hall project has sailed through the City Council, it is confronting unusually stiff resistance from one of Nevada’s most powerful unions, Culinary Local 226.

The union, which has 55,000 members, calls the proposal ill-advised in hard economic times, when thousands of people have been laid off from casinos that have suffered declines in attendance and gambling revenue. It has collected enough signatures to place two measures on the ballot in June intended to block the plan and give voters a greater say in redevelopment.

Goodman, who predicts that the project could yield more than 13,000 jobs, fires back that the union is merely pressuring the developer for a favorable labor contract.

Both sides promise a vigorous fight over a proposal that even some of Goodman’s supporters question.

„Right now might not be the best time,“ said Tracey Horowitz, a Las Vegas glass artist who sometimes sells her pieces downtown. „It would be a great plan for two or three years ago when things were going great,“ said Horowitz, who calls herself a fan of the mayor.

But the plan also has its supporters, like Chris Watkins, a Las Vegas construction worker who has not found steady work for two years.

„It sounds like it means more jobs for people like me,“ said Watkins, who was walking on Fremont Street, where marketers five years ago installed a giant lighted canopy over several blocks to give it more pizzazz.

Jon Ralston, a columnist for The Las Vegas Sun and other publications who has covered the political scene here for more than two decades, said the fight included the classic Vegas ingredients of land use, casinos and a mayor, in his third term, who is accustomed to getting his way.

„Oscar Goodman thinks this is a watershed moment in his career,“ he said. „This would be a crushing defeat in his political career. And the union is pushing this thing to the max. They are going all out on this.“

Las Vegas is running out of room to grow within its city limits; most of the Strip is in Clark County territory, not the city, and some of the more viable remaining tracts are downtown.

The downtown casinos have, however, never matched the allure of the Strip or its gambling and hotel revenue, and the area, though popular with some locals, has long struggled with crime and blight.

David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Indian casinos in California and other places had also taken a toll, offering a cheap alternative closer to home for many gamblers not enticed by the resort experience.

„It has been hit harder by Indian gaming than the Strip,“ said Schwartz, author of a book on the growth of the Strip, „Suburban Xanadu.“ „If somebody is flying out for a weekend of gambling from New York, they are probably not thinking of going to an Indian casino in San Diego. But if somebody in L.A. is thinking of playing blackjack they can drive an hour or so rather than stay in downtown Las Vegas.“

Under the plan, the development group LiveWork Las Vegas/Forest City would build the new city hall at First Street and Clark Avenue, lease it back to the city and swap the land underneath for a 6.4-acre property at Union Park, a large mixed-use complex being developed with another partner that will include a concert hall, space for medical research and other components. There, the development group would build a 47-story, 1,000-room high-end casino hotel.

The land under the existing city hall could be paired with an adjacent lot for 20 acres of developable space, perhaps for an arena to lure a professional sports team, which the mayor has long sought.

„Half the people who come to visit come downtown,“ Goodman said, sitting in his 10th-floor office in the building he wants to implode. „The trick is to keep them downtown and spending downtown.“