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Trouble on Strip Helps Downtown Vegas Hotel

October 17, 2011

Bill Ordine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 16, 2011

In these trying economic times, financial calamities for some have been rare opportunities for others, as in one person's foreclosure can be another's bargain of a lifetime.

The same has been true in Las Vegas.

The Plaza Hotel and Casino, a 40-year-old gambling hall in downtown Vegas, is emerging from a transformation helped in large part by a halted luxury casino project on the Strip.

When work stopped on the upscale but financially troubled Fontainebleau, all its interior furnishings- furniture, carpets, fixtures, marble, and granite- were up for grabs. The Plaza grabbed.

"When they were looking to liquidate, we got a nice product for pennies on the dollar," said Plaza president and CEO Tony Santo. "And that got our thought process going."

The Plaza, located on the west end of the downtown casino corridor known as Fremont Street, underwent an extreme makeover with the Fontainebleau's furnishings. After closing for several months, the Plaza reopened on Sept. 1 with its more than 1,000 rooms and suites remodeled. Yet, it could keep hotel rates in a bargain category, starting at $44 midweek and averaging $109 on weekends.

For years, Fremont Street has struggled to compete with the more polished and pricier Strip to the south. The Plaza's makeover, along with efforts at the El Cortez Hotel and Casino farther to the east, and the steadying presence of the four-diamond Golden Nugget, give downtown some solid footing for a revival.

In addition to the hotel renovations, the Plaza is ushering in a raft of new restaurants, including one being opened in December by former Las Vegas mayor and onetime lawyer for clients with reputed mob ties, Oscar Goodman, a Philadelphia native.

Oscar's will be a steak house occupying a dining room that's been a setting for movie scenes, including Casino, because of its panoramic view of Fremont Street. Near the steak dining room will be an Italian restaurant and speakeasy, the latter an apparent nod to Goodman's former endeavors.

Among other new restaurants at the Plaza is the Hash House A Go Go, a locals' favorite that serves jumbo portions of comfort food with special tweaks- think butterscotch almond pancakes.

A new cocktail lounge features dueling pianos and a miniature golf course- you read that correctly. Its 600-seat showroom will remain old-school with tables and chairs, although there's no entertainment calendar yet.

"We want a blend of the traditional while making it new," Santo said.

At the opposite end of the Fremont Street corridor, the El Cortez has been undergoing its own renaissance at a more deliberate pace. And in the process, it has become the anchor of an organic resurgence of what is known as Fremont East with a collection of small-operation eateries, bars, and other businesses catering to locals and tourists.

"While we want to keep improving ourselves and look after our (casino) customers, we also want to look outside of ourselves and engage the community and be a supporter of downtown," said El Cortez executive manager Alexandra Epstein, who has been promoting revitalization efforts.

Like much of downtown, the El Cortez had become rundown. But starting in 2005, it remodeled the 300 rooms attached to the casino. Then two years ago, the El Cortez revamped a nearby motel, converting more than 100 budget rooms into 64 suites with black-and-white art-deco furnishings set against brightly painted walls.

Yet the rooms are priced at budget levels, and at the moment, the midweek rate for some rooms actually works out to zero after dining credits and gaming freebies are tossed in.

Earlier this year, the El Cortez named the winner of a design contest to create a new suite experience for the hotel.

The winner was called the The Big Sleep, a stylized homage to the 70-year-old El Cortez's mob past when it was owned by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. For example, the bold striped carpeting is meant to evoke a gangster's pinstriped suit. Among other elements are a desert-scape mural and the random alligator skull lurking in a corner. Big Sleep suites range from $155 to $170 midweek and $200 to $220 weekend.

Across from the El Cortez, in a building owned by the casino company, a creative collective called Emergency Arts assembles a coffeehouse, art galleries, a bikini and sportswear store, and even a burlesque hall of fame. The Beat Coffeehouse and Records occasionally presents live music- there's a Sunday blues brunch- along with joe, beer, wine, and casual food. Plus, it sells vinyl records and holds weekly poetry readings.

While some old downtown Vegas places are trying to become newer, and newer places are trying to take root, the Golden Nugget remains Fremont Street's keystone. This year, the hotel earned AAA's Four Diamond Award for the 35th consecutive time.

Since 2005, the resort has undergone $300 million in expansions and improvements including a hotel tower that opened two years ago and a $30 million three-story swimming-pool complex with a shark aquarium, waterfalls, and bar.


Bill Ordine [email protected]



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