Joe Downtown: Fremont Street executives say downtown Las Vegas is getting out of control
Downtown’s recent success as a nightlife hub is ratcheting up fears that the area is becoming so awash in booze and underage drinking that violence is growing, creating an expensive need for more law enforcement.
City officials on Tuesday considered applications for three more liquor stores that want to do business under the electric canopy of the Fremont Street Experience. The liquor stores failed to win approval from the Planning Commission. Commissioners' votes were tied, 3-3.
Commissioner Trinity Schlottman, who voted against the stores, said he would have voted favorably had the ordinance addressed the size of the liquor containers sold. Because of growing concerns about underage drinking in the area, he did not want the stores to sell small bottles of liquor that can be easily hidden.
But the Planning Commission's vote doesn't end the issue. The City Council is scheduled to discuss it and possibly vote August 21.
Fremont Street Experience executives oppose the idea – even though one of the liquor stores would lease space in the Vegas Club casino-hotel, which as of about two years ago, stopped being a dues-paying member of the Experience. Other casinos pay a monthly fee that adds up to about $1 million annually, which pays for security, cleaning and entertainment.
City planning staff have signed off on plans for all three stores, city documents show. And high-powered lawyers and lobbyists for the liquor stores have filed “justification letters” that outline arguments in favor of the stores opening.
Brown, Brown & Premsrirut, a Las Vegas law firm, represents two of the businesses, one at 300 Fremont St., the other at 316 Fremont St. It argues liquor stores are legally compatible for the space, which doesn't lie within 400 feet of any protected entity, such as a school.
Moran Law Firm represents Arelni LLC, which wants to sell liquor in the Las Vegas Club and another space almost directly across the street. The firm wrote that similar stores surround the area and two new stores “will not disrupt the surrounding land use.”
Opposing the liquor stores are Fremont Street Experience executives and the operators of The D and Golden Gate casinos.
Jeff Victor, Fremont Street Experience president, talked about a shooting a month ago in front of The D, a stabbing early Monday and what appears to be a growing incidence of underage drinking at fhe Experience and adjacent Fremont East Entertainment District.
Victor puts some of the blame on the relatively recent trend of selling packaged liquor. When he became president seven years ago, the 7-Eleven at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard was considered a problem spot because it sold liquor.
When it closed, a Walgreen’s opened a block closer to the Fremont Street Experience. But the store was allowed only on the condition that it could not sell packaged liquor, Victor said.
“We didn’t want to create another 7-Eleven issue,” he said.
But city officials more recently ignored Victor's arguments and have since approved six liquor stores within the canopied Experience.
“I opposed them all," Victor said. "I stood at the podium and said please do not put this element back onto our street.”
For those who say he and casino owners are trying to squelch competition, because casino gift shops sell liquor, Victor vows that’s not the case.
“I promise you, that is not what this is about,” he said. “We have never opposed a tavern license at Fremont, Neonopolis, Fremont East or in the Arts District.”
Packaged liquor sales are different, Victor said, because a middleman – a bartender – isn’t involved.
“When you order from a bartender, he looks at you, and he or she can decide if you’ve had too much for the night,” Victor said. “When you go to a liquor store, you buy a bottle of liquor or a case of beer and that cashier rings it up just as if they’re selling a souvenir ashtray with no regard as to what’s going to happen to that bottle … I don’t know why the city would even entertain the idea of more.”
Victor walked down to the casinos after getting a phone call about 1 a.m. Saturday – “management told me things were getting a little rough,” he said – and saw “kids” with 24-ounce cans of 4 Loco, which contains 12.5 percent alcohol. At a store that he can see from his Fremont Street office, one proprietor sells two cans of it for $5.
“I can tell you, no casino is selling that stuff, and no tourist is asking for it at a casino bar,” he said.
Victor also saw something typically unheard of in Las Vegas. Though hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were still on Fremont Street at 1:30 a.m., a number of casinos shut down their outdoor bars.
The atmosphere on under the canopy "just didn’t feel good to them,” Victor said.
The liquor stores, meanwhile, stayed open.
“The one across the way was still open with intoxicated people waiting in line to buy more,” Victor said.
Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.