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Dec 28, 2021

The Fremont Street Experience drives 26 million visitors annually to downtown Las Vegas. It covers five city blocks with direct access to eight downtown hotel casinos. However, when the space opened on December 14, 1995, no one was sure how it would turn out.  

Why? Because during the brainstorming portion of the project, there was some opposition from residents, and a lot of different ideas about what the Fremont Street Experience would be.

Andrew Simon, Bill Marion, and the Las Vegas mayor at the time, Jan Jones Blackhurst, were all here when the Fremont Street Experience came into fruition. They’re considered experts, so they can speak to how the Fremont Street Experience changed the tourism landscape in Las Vegas when it first opened.

We spoke to Andrew Simon, Bill Marion and Jan Jones Blackhurst during an interview in honor of the anniversary for the Fremont Street Experience. Here’s a little history on them:

Simon is the Chief Executive Officer of the Fremont Street Experience and a longtime Las Vegan.

Marion, is a principal and partner of Purdue Marion & Associates Public Relations, and a native Las Vegan and a historian.  Jones Blackhurst, who was the city of Las Vegas mayor from 1991 to 1999, including during the opening of the Fremont Street Experience in 1995, sits on the board of directors of several organizations: Caesars Entertainment the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Las Vegas Stadium Authority, which owns Allegiant Stadium. She is also CEO-in-residence at the International Gaming Institute at UNLV.

When asked to tell the history of the Fremont Experience before it became the big phenomenon it is now, Marion, Simon and Jones Blackhurst had the following conversation on Twitter Spaces. Watch the video below:

(Read the full transcript of the conversation below.)

Marion: “Fremont Street actually [got] its start in May of 1905 when William Clark held a land auction for the construction of the railroad that went from Salt Lake City to L.A. There were two hotels that were originally built on Fremont Street, right at the corner of Main and Fremont. One was the Nevada Hotel, which we now know of as the Golden Gate. The other was the Overland Hotel, which is now Circa. There was no gaming on Fremont Street at that time, it was a business district.

“Gaming was relegated a block over in between Ogden and Stewart and in between First and Second Street, that's the famous block 16, and it wasn't until around the 20s that they realized that with the enough traffic coming in from the railroad depot, that Fremont Street actually made better sense for those activities, and so it started to grow. But the real growth spurt happened, uh, in 1931. Two things occurred that year. One was the legalization of gaming in Nevada, but more important even than that was the construction starting on Hoover Dam. 

“Hoover Dam was really sort of the big catalyst for bringing Las Vegas into a more modern age. One of the things that people don't realize is that, but Las Vegas really owes itself to Boulder City because the manager of the federal reservation in Boulder city ruled that there would be no alcohol, no gaming, no prostitution inside the Boulder City limits. So that meant that anybody who wanted to play or have fun or let off steam or even visitors coming, had to go to Fremont Street in Las Vegas in order to get entertainment. So that's when you start seeing some of these clubs start building. That's when neon signs start getting profuse along Fremont Street. And a lot of properties that you wouldn't even remember the names of today, like the Lucky Strike, the Hotel Apache, the Boulder Club, the Pioneer Club, the Eldorado Club. The Hotel Nevada changed its name to the Sal Segav, which of course is Las Vegas spelled backwards.

“Then in the 40s and 50s, it, it grew significantly, and you had in the mid 1950s, the Fremont Hotel gets built. It becomes the tallest building in Nevada at the time, and then The Mint in the early 60s goes up, and even more neon is built, and Fremont Street really earns a reputation for being a, an exciting place to go. It's vibrant at night; you didn't even need a light to read the newspaper because the lights from the neon signs were so bright. But also, Fremont Street was the, uh, the shopping district as well. So, I can remember as a kid, I mean, Woolworth's, Ronzoni’s department store, JC Penney, Beckley’s.

Fremont Street in the 1960s courtesy Vintage Vegas.jpeg

(Fremont Street in the 1960s courtesy Vintage Las Vegas)

Marion continues: “Fremont street was the place, not only where visitors went, but it was also the place where locals went because that's where you would go to shop. Then Fremont Street was, uh, a center of activity on Fridays. The students from the low schools would cruise Fremont Street. Um, and I, you know, I can even a couple of memories from the, the late sixties, early seventies, Mr. Bees Bag, which was the sort of psychedelic shop and the Circus Room where the places where we went. So, Fremont Street had a very lively beginning. It was, uh, it was a place where families went as well as tourists went. Um, and then things changed on Fremont Street again in 1971, when the Depot was torn down and the Union Plaza went up and it kind of then sealed what Fremont street going to look like. And then of course the next revolution was the Fremont Street experience, which, uh, you know, I'll let Andrew talk about that, but you know, it closed the street. There was no more cruising anymore. Um, people weren't going downtown to shop anymore because you then had the Boulevard Mall open up the Meadows Mall, open up. So, Fremont Street changed characters significantly, um, in the 1970s and 80s.”

Nancy Byrne, host: “Thank you, Mayor [Jones] for being with us. Can you tell us more about the 80s and how tourism was changing, and how, um, into your reign starting in 91, how you started to see that maybe Fremont Street needed to change?”

Mayor Jones: “Well in 1989, when the Mirage opened, you saw a huge change of people's interest in coming to downtown Las Vegas. In fact, in the 80s, even into the mid-80s -- 80% of the people who came to Las Vegas made at least one trip to see Fremont Street.  By 1989, 1990-91, those numbers had flipped so that less than 20% were coming downtown. So, the whole economic engine of downtown Las Vegas was being threatened. And not only that, as you know, all of your county buildings, your city buildings, your courthouses are all downtown. And as people weren't coming to Fremont Street, a lot of those organizations were looking to move out. So, it became really important to find a way to make and keep Fremont eat relevant, not only as the historical Fremont Street, but to bring people, give them a reason to come down and visit, and that was the germination of the Fremont Street Experience.”

Screen Shot 2021-12-28 at 12.29.42 PM.png

(Photo of Fremont Street in 1979 before it became the Fremont Street Experience is courtesy of Vintage Las Vegas.)

Byrne: “So that was coming, uh, around the bend as the, uh, the decade changed. And, um, you were -- you were mayor, as we said from 91 to 99. Let's talk a little bit about some of the concepts. Mayor, you can talk about that. And Bill can probably jump in too.”

Mayor Jones: Well, it was; you know, you were really dealing with Jack Binion, Steve Wynn, Bill Boyd, um, Jackie Gone, you had some really big personalities. And so, everybody was a little bit all over the place. At one point they were talking about canals. They were gonna dig up Fremont Street and put in, you know, canal boats, which I think Sheldon later stole, hence the Venetian.

Marion: “And actually at one point, Mayor Jones, this is Bill Marion, wasn't Steve Wynn really trying to like, he wanted to recreate the San Antonio River Walk?”

Mayor Jones: “Steve, that's not how Steve looked at things. Steve was trying to come up with a concept that would bring people down. He'd figured out with the Mirage that he didn't need to hold people in his properties. He just needed them to stop by. He wanted a reason for people to come downtown. So, the river walk was effective. The canals he thought, you know, you could have singing boatman, you know Steve's a consummate entertainer. So, he was initially all over the place. At one point, we looked at a Star Trek concept where they built a big Star Trek, um, spaceship and space station, but all of these were thrown away for different reasons. The, um, canals, because not only was it expensive, [but] the whole issue of water gave people cause for concern; you'd have to dig up the entire street, then you couldn't walk on the street.

“Same thing with, um, Star Trek; [you’d] come one time, but then why do you come back down? And then Steve, and I do have to give Steve Wynn the credit for this, had the vision to, and everybody collaborated, and we did a lot of things to make it happen, hired Jon Jerde, who Steve used a lot of his developments, and Jon came up with the Fremont Street Experience, which in essence created the world's largest casino because all of the casinos on Fremont Street opened to the street. 

Screen Shot 2021-12-28 at 12.29.19 PM.png

(Photo of Fremont Street in 1979 before it became the Fremont Street Experience is courtesy of Vintage Las Vegas.)

Mayor Jones continues: "It was safe because you could really restrict who could be on the street. It could be used as event space or community space, which we still see today, and then he invented this light show, which people take for grant today, but in 1994 or 95, when we opened a high tech LED light show, which was spectacular, even then, that gave the reason for people to come down to Fremont Street; multiple reasons to both see the show, [and] to feel a sense of being a part of it. It was sort of a festive fun environment. We only had enough money to go, the four blocks or we would've gone all the way to the end of Fremont Street and then the Neon Museum and Neonopolis would've been all a part of it.”

Byrne: “I, I just, I remember I moved here in 97 and people talking about the, there was a lot of opposition and I read an article, um, Mayor Jones, where you said, ‘who would've thought that you could build an almost entire inside casino experience with a light show to bring people downtown and well, what do you know, it worked out didn't it?”

Michael Bittle photo of Fremont Street Experiment 2021-12-28 at 1.43.28 PM.png

(Photo of the Fremont Street Experience in 2021 courtesy Michael Bittle on Instagram.)

Mayor Jones: “Sure did, and it was controversial because in order to make it happen, we had to use eminent domain and eminent domain is always controversial, but in my mind, even though it was, and, and I took a lot of heat for it at the time more important was protecting the downtown core, preserving those jobs, keeping Fremont Street, a relevant part of the city, both history and entertainment experience and Fremont Street and subsequently Symphony Park and all those areas -- it's the only area in this valley that sort of equal distant from Henderson from North Las Vegas, from Summerlin, so it could be the real heart of the city. Otherwise, we were going to become a city of strip malls.”

Byrne: “Right.  So, Andrew, I want to pull you in here. Andrew Simon, current CEO [of the Fremont Street Experience], joined up September of 2020, which was very brave of you in the middle of a pandemic. Um, as Mayor Jones was talking, you know, that the screen was spectacular when it opened. Recently [there’s] been a $32 million upgrade and of course, uh, Circa opened, there's been upgrades to the properties there. Tell us a little bit about how you feel the screen and the Fremont Street Experience compares to when it opened.”

Simon: “Sure. You know, I'm a, I'm an interesting one cause I worked for Steve Wynn in 1992. It was my first job out of college at the Mirage. So, I saw a lot of this transition happening, um, and what was going on. But in 1995 to compliment what Mayor Jones was saying, um, originally the canopy was incandescent light bulbs that were secured to the underside of the canopy and to give context, they had 32 computers that they needed to control the lights. Um, and you could only see the canopy from when it would get dark till midnight is when we used to have it going. In 2004, they spent about $17 million to upgrade to the LEDs and they had 12 and a half million LEDs and they added a 550,000, um, watts stereo system. Then in 2019, that's when we did this big upgrade, a $32 million upgrade, 50 million LEDs, 16 million pixels.

“But most importantly it made the screen seven times brighter and the resolution four times what it used to be, and this allowed it to run 24/7 and it's the world's largest single digital display. And we added shows from The Killers, you know, Vegas’ own The Killers, Imagine Dragon, Shakira, The Chainsmokers to take advantage of this canopy. 

Simon continued: "That really is one of a kind. And like I said, the world's largest.  But I got one story that Mayor Jones, uh, may be able to confirm or deny. Before I did this call today, I was talking to our chairman, Mark Brandenburg, and he said, when the canopy was first built, they were putting up a panel with those incandescent bulbs in 1994/95 that tested out and Steve Wynn looked up there and said, ‘this resolution, it isn't bright enough.’ I want more bulbs, which led to the budget being over, which is why it doesn't extend between Las Vegas Boulevard and 4th Street.

Mayor Jones: “That's, that's absolutely true, Andrew. Steve was in the same way that he built his resorts. He was very particular and, um, persistent of about the quality and that's what he wanted, and Steve was driving it.”

Simon: “No, I love that story. Having worked for Steve for some time after that, it, it rang true to me and that's why I wanted to confirm it with Mayor Jones. It was true, so, there you go, but I'll turn it to you Nancy.”

Byrne: “Going back a little bit historically, what was the sentiment knowing that Fremont was going to be closed permanently to vehicle traffic? Was that part of the pushback or was it mostly just people not being able to agree on what the concept would be?”

Mayor Jones: “Well, there, there was different, and I'll let Bill jump in here too. The community problem or opposition came from ‘you're taking away our street and we don't want to do this, and you're spending taxpayer money.’ With the downtown casino owners and most of the constituents, they were pretty supportive because we realized we didn't have a choice. We either had to create a spectacular experience or what was happening on the Las Vegas Strip would close down Fremont Street.”

Marion: “Yeah, and I would say, I think that, that the community, they, they did not like seeing, or they were concerned about, you know, how Fremont Street looked because it really did have a particular kind of appeal to it. And, you know, there was this history of cruising Fremont Street, but by the 90s, things on Fremont Street had really changed dramatically. It wasn't a place where locals went anymore because the stores were basically gone and Jen correct me if I'm wrong, but you know, the crime had risen.”

Mayor Jones: “Oh yes.”

Marion: “The area, the area around Fremont Street had deteriorated. Um, the motels that were further down on Fremont Street were mostly vacant, so I think the people realized we need to do something or this deterioration of Fremont Street is just going to keep going.”

Mayor Jones: “I actually think the city leaders and the gaming leaders knew we needed to do something. People don't like change, but you had to make that hard decision. And this, this was a moment in time where putting up your finger to test if you could get all the public aligned was not going to be the right approach.”

Byrne: “Well, let's flash forward to today, and this can be Andrew, Jan, anyone, anyone who wants to jump in. Did the Fremont Street experience become what everyone had hoped ore more than they had expected? What is, what is your impression, Andrew, Jan.”

Mayor Jones: “More, more than they hoped because you saw a pretty immediate gravitation to the attraction and that's what it was intended to do. And then the L VCVA realized they could rent the space. They could use the space, you know, so the adaptability, plus it was safe. You know, you didn't have any panhandling. The crime was almost gone because Metro could go on bicycles. It absolutely changed the character of downtown.”

Marion: “I think also it, it created even in the summertime, the beautiful thing about that canopy is it is also a shade structure. Right? It makes Fremont Street a pedestrian spot all year round. And then I also think that, you know, it's an entertainment venue. It's got stages where you can have music, so it's not just the canopy and it's not just the light show, it's a multimedia of opportunity.”

Simon: “Going back to your previous question as well, um, whether this worked out. I think this really has, if you look at the investments that have been going on at the billions of dollars over the last few years, whether it's circa and when Zappos and downtown project, and look at what the Fremont is about to do a remodel and what happened on Fremont East, it wasn't just Fremont Street Experience. It's a whole downtown area that it really saved it at a time that without the Fremont Street Experience, I'm not sure we'd see the downtown we see today.”

Fremont Street Experience photo 1.jpeg

(Photo courtesy the Fremont Street Experience on Twitter.)

Byrne: “It has, I would have to agree. And Bill, you can jump in here too. Jan, anyone; I'm not trying to take over – this isn't my show. I'm just trying to lead it. But, um, certainly, um, the Goodmans certainly didn't hurt things coming in and, uh, taking an empty lot and turning it in into Symphony Park and, and it just seems, it just seemed to be spreading and, and, uh, yes, I think the Fremont Street Experience is sort of a catalyst for a lot of that. I don't want to take over. I do want to find out if there's anything I haven't specifically asked any of you that you would like to add to this conversation before we close?”

Marion: “I would say that, that, you know, and, and Jan deserves so much credit for it because she was a true visionary when she came in, and she's right, there was some controversy over some of the things that she did, but there were a couple of other things that happened around Fremont Street, that I think that the Fremont Street experiences also had an influence on. And that is, you know, the Mob Museum as now a major attraction for tourists.

Mayor Jones: “The Neon, no, it's the Neon Museum, and that came out of the Fremont Street Experience.”

Marion: “Right, I should have said the Neon Museum first, and I should have said that before I said the Mob Museum, but then the Neon Museum got into the phase that it is today. It was an outdoor museum with neon signs along the Fremont Street Experience, and that was largely due because of Jan Jones because Jan as mayor created that Neon Museum. And so anyway, there, there are more attractions now around Fremont Street that might not be there if it hadn't been for the Fremont street experience revolution.”

Byrne: “It's a great time to be in Las Vegas. It has been for many years. And I just admire how leaders such as all of you have, um, helped reinvent this city over and over again. And Mayor Jones, I think, I don't know if you were with us at the very beginning of this discussion, but, um, you know, you were here at a time when people were just, they stopped coming and to come up with a concept that redirected tourists and, and now locals as well to our downtown did nothing, but, but help. And so, we appreciate all of you. This was such an interesting discussion. I feel very honored to be part of it. And I want to thank former Mayor Jan Jones. It's so good to talk to you, and Bill Marion and Andrew Simon, and thank you all so much for being part of this and thanks to everyone who stopped in to listen as well. And thanks to Jen Davies for producing and helping set this up as well. She went to great length to make sure all three of you could be here, so this wraps up our discussion about the history of Fremont street experience. If you want more information about this wonderful attraction, you can always visit vegasexperience.com. Thanks again, everybody!

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