BEGINNING IN THE 1980s, family-oriented tourists began to invade Las Vegas en masse. To take full advantage of this new demographic, casino owners and developers had to provide entertainment options that didn't include high stakes and hard luck.

The resulting parade of theme-park style developments that blossomed along the Strip spelled bad news for the city's shopworn downtown district. Tourist dollars began streaming to the Strip, bypassing the once-proud Main Street that critics now dubbed a haven for purse snatchers and slot-crazed seniors.

But the climate began to reverse in 1995 with the unveiling of a new reason for tourists to venture downtown — the four-block long Fremont Street Experience. A result of the collaboration between downtown's casino owners, the attraction is a five-story canopy of pulsating lights and Vegas imagery that spans Fremont Street, the city's original main thoroughfare.

Reviving an icon

Though the Experience began drawing 16 million visitors annually, developers were still convinced a piece was missing from downtown. The casinos and Fremont Street attraction were in place, but no dining or soft entertainment components were present. Enter Neonopolis, a 235,000-sq.-ft. entertainment center poised to serve as the gateway to the Experience.

“We envision Neonopolis as a place for tourists to hang out after the Fremont Experience show, or as a gathering spot for downtown Vegas' workforce of some 70,000 professionals,” says Chardell Steves, who handles leasing for the new center on behalf of locally based developers World Entertainment Centers.

The three-level center, already under construction, will be anchored by a 60,000-sq.-ft., 14-screen cinema complex. Two underground levels of parking ensure the center is conveniently accessible. Neonopolis will sit at the eastern end of the Fremont Street Experience with frontage on Las Vegas Boulevard, on the main line of the city's bus system.

Steves is coordinating a tenant lineup that will include a variety of dining, entertainment and shopping venues, including national chains making their first entrance into the Vegas market. “We're not going high-end,” she says. “People are not going to have to think. The retailers will offer impulse-buy items and no-brainer shopping where anyone can find something. Consumers can find big-ticket luxury goods on the Strip. Neonopolis will offer a different experience.”

Steves emphasizes that the center is designed to appeal to the local community as much as the tourists. “We want to capture the office workers who are already downtown each day, and create an environment the locals would identify as their own place,” she says. “Downtown has an advantage over the Strip when it comes to locals. They've always had an attachment to downtown because it's easily accessible, only three blocks from the freeway system.”

Dramatic design

The developer commissioned the Los Angeles office of RTKL to create a plan for Neonopolis that would incorporate all facets of its intended personality. The team decided to emulate Irvine, Calif.'s popular Irvine Spectrum, but in a vertical setting. One hurdle to overcome was the center's sheer bulk.

“We didn't want it to look like one building,” says Norman Garden, vice president at RTKL. “We broke down the scale and bulk of the building with terraces. We disguised it with overlapping layers of architecture.”

The collage of layers makes Neonopolis a dramatic space with a bit of a town feature, where those seeking escape from the hustle of Fremont Street can find an oasis, Garden says.

The cinema anchor is on the center's top level, while the dining and entertainment experiences occupy the second level and retail space makes up the ground level. The center's Las Vegas Boulevard entrance was designed to accommodate bus queues for the influx of patrons from around the city.

“The design attitude is terraced and layered back,” Garden says. “We used a U-shaped configuration to put the people-oriented uses such as nightclubs with balconies overlooking the barrel vault of the Experience.” The result, an interaction between indoors and outdoors that reinforces the role of the Experience as unofficial anchor.

“Neonopolis needed to reinforce the rejuvenation of downtown,” Garden says. “Designing the center, it was important to incorporate bold and striking colors to give it a 24-hour feel, so it remains vibrant and alive even during the harsh daylight hours. In a daytime setting, color provides a festive, attention-getting approach. At night, signage will bring the project to life.”

And progress on the center is moving right along. The development team has established a website at neonopolis.net that monitors the project, including current photos and leasing information. “Profits are up downtown,” Steves says. “With Neonopolis opening early next year, the district is in for even more of a revenue boost.”

Downtown snapshot

Downtown Las Vegas is situated at the center of a retail trade area that boasts the 10 largest hotels in the United States, 11 of the 13 largest hotels in the world, and a trade area that draws 34 million visitors spending $29 billion dollars annually.

Tourist spending is growing at the rapid rate of 11% per year and, contrary to popular belief, the casinos aren't getting all of the proceeds. Non-gaming tourism generated $22.5 billion in 1999 — more than the tourism revenue generated by New York City and San Francisco combined.

The city as a whole is made up of 1.3 million residents, and that number is expected to climb to 2 million by 2005. More than 8,000 people move to the area each month, possibly attracted by the state's lack of personal income taxes. Las Vegas' median income is $41,875, and the median age is 46.6, with 71% of residents having obtained a college degree.