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Joe Downtown: Where casino project could have been, the Arts District is growing

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Rogue Toys owners Krystal and Steve Johnston are seen with a selection of their offerings as well as their sidewalk advertiser, Jamal Dotson dressed as Spider Man, Friday, June 7, 2013.
Photo: Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The Las Vegas Arts District could be on a very different path had a plan to raze dozens of buildings to make way for a Downtown arena-casino complex happened.

That nowhere plan, Project Neon Lights, died. And today, without the aid of a rich benefactor or a team of investors, the Arts District is doing something developers five years ago denied, but the artists who lived and worked there predicted: It’s growing.

I’ve previously written about the weeks-old Velveteen Rabbit on Main Street, just south of other urban taverns—Bar & Bistro, Artifice and Mingo, which also opened very recently. Numerous stores that have nothing to do with alcohol are nearby, with names like Retro Vegas, Patina and Better Than New. Many of those wouldn’t be there had Project Neon Lights come to fruition.

There’s more: About six blocks away, halfway between Fremont East and the Arts District, another rather remarkable thing is happening. The massive condo development Juhl (353 E. Bonneville Ave.), which finished in 2008 and went through all kinds of financial troubles, will very shortly have its first retail outlet in one of its first-floor storefront spaces.

Amie Pellegrini, 30, is opening a bike shop in the storefront attached to her upstairs condo. She’s calling it the Town Bike. Motto: “Where everyone gets a ride.”

“I’ve spent every dime I have on this,” she says, looking over the space. She will rent and sell bicycles and, for the start at least, be the sole employee.

Amie Pellegrini is opening a bike shop in the storefront attached to her Juhl condo.

After getting laid off from her job selling medical devices about a year ago, she started thinking about selling bikes. “My friend got me on a bike, and we had the best time riding around Downtown, going bar to bar, the farmers market, wherever,” says Pellegrini, who has lived in Juhl for two years.

About a block east on Las Vegas Boulevard, more new businesses have sprung up. The Sweet Spot Candy Shop (616 Las Vegas Blvd. S.) was opened seven months ago by Barry Troller and Paul Balikian. Retro candies such as the Idaho Spud are sold alongside specialty chocolates, taffies and gummies in all shapes and flavors.

“People love how unexpected it is for this type of shop being down here,” Troller says. “They say, ‘This belongs somewhere else.’ But it belongs here. We wanted to be Downtown. We actually expected our biggest customers to be tourists, but it’s been just the opposite. Our local people are the biggest supporters.”

In the same block is Rogue Toys, a buyer and seller of old and new toys opened only a month ago by Steve and Krystal Johnston.

After selling retro toys on eBay for about two years, the pair opted for a brick-and-mortar storefront to display hundreds of Star Wars figurines, G.I. Joe toys—including a 3-foot-long submarine—Simpsons toys and more.

“Foot traffic has been great,” says Krystal, who previously worked as a paralegal. “People who collect these types of toys have money and spend freely. Some also have collections to sell, so we’re getting both sides of the market in our favor.”

A few doors down on the boulevard is a relatively new convenience store, Whatcha Need, along with SWAG Antiques, and additional redevelopment is on the way, sources and developers tell me.

These single-store business plans aren’t as grandiose as that now-dead $6 billion arena/casino/retail/condo project, but they may be more sustainable. And if the current crop of new businesses is any example, they will absolutely feel more like a part of the community.

MORE Joe Downtown: Photographer sees parallels between Downtown Las Vegas and LA

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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