Friday, August 16, 2013

Neonopolis Rising

The much maligned and massive Neonopolis retail space in the middle of The Fremont Street Experience has been a nightmarish Bermuda Triangle of failed restaurant and retail concepts since it was first built over eleven years ago. An 11 screen multiplex, a Jillian's Bar & Arcade, and The Las Vegas Rocks Cafe are just a few examples of the shuttered businesses that couldn't hack it in the three story Downtown mall. Sadder still was the fact that a lot of the storefronts were never filled in the first place.

Big hype and hoopla surrounded Neonopolis when it first opened up, promising to anchor the kind of Downtown renaissance that Tony Hseih and his merry band of gentrifying hipster techies are successfully bringing to the neighborhood these days, but the mall failed to attract tourists away from The Strip or bring any locals around. Poor planning (installing an air conditioning inside a movie theater located in the middle of the desert seems like a no brainer, but apparently the owners of the multiplex had less than no brains) and high rents killed the place before dreams of a thriving Downtown Vegas mall could ever come true, and Neonopolis became a haunted and empty ghost-town in the middle of Fremont Street, a brightly colored embarrassment and missed opportunity that was a frequent punchline for Vegas press and bloggers alike.

But this is Las Vegas, the most American of American cities, and this country is known for its comebacks and second-acts. After over a decade as the tumbleweed infected, Las Vegas version of the early days of Euro-Disney, Neonopolis has turned a corner. The owners of the popular Krave gay club on The Strip built Drink and Drag, a fun bowling alley staffed by drag queens that's become a hit, and they're about to open Krave Massive (which promises to be the biggest gay club on the planet) in the space once occupied by the movie theater.

Attracting a slightly different demographic isThe Heart Attack Grill, a defiantly unhealthy burger and shake joint that boasts about its high calorie, blood pressure heightening offerings (fries cooked in pure lard and cigarettes are among the few menu items), is staffed by waitresses dressed as sexy nurses, offers free food to patrons who weigh over 350 pounds, and has made national news multiple times due to guests experiencing actual heart attacks at or in front of the restaurant... which has only added to the place's mystique and made it an extremely popular attraction for tourists from all over the country. One of the largest Denny's on the planet, complete with its own wedding chapel, has thrived in the mall as well.

Inspired by the innovative and unique businesses (and the Denny's) thriving in the mall, entrepreneurs are rolling the dice and opening their own new places and breathing new life into a retail behemoth that was once written off as DOA. The large Supernova Comics fills in a gap for an under-served demographic of geeks in the area, which is a genuinely smart move considering the number of tech-heads moving into the neighborhood. Plus the awesome starship command center design of the checkout desk makes the place standout from standard comic book stores, which will bring in the curious out of towner geeks. Just a few doors down is Evapor8, which is taking advantage of the exploding E-Cigarette trend and already bringing in plenty of customers.

Most exciting is the upcoming opening of Banger Brewing, the brainchild of local beer geeks and home brewers, who plan to open up shop in October. The brewers have already concocted a few innovative suds that will be available on the day the place opens, including their much hyped Jalapeno Hefeweizen, Watermelon Wheat, and Chocolate Mint Stout, as well as their own spins on classics like their IPA, Pale Ale, and Blonde. The brewery will be able to seat 80 and could become a staple for tourists thirsty for a locally brewed craft pint and locals looking for a growler fill. I'm certainly looking forward to toasting over a cold one when I visit Las Vegas in the fall.

Neonopolis was once a punchline, but Las Vegas, with its history of old performers making big comebacks on its stages and folks hitting jackpots in their casinos, is no stranger to miraculous comebacks and out of nowhere turnarounds. Just like Euro-Disney, which shook off the the bad-press and low attendance of its early days by adding in alcohol and re-christening itself as Disneyland Paris to become the most popular tourist attraction in Europe, Neonopolis has found new life with smart and innovative local businesses occupying its once empty spaces.