(Michael Chamberlain/Nevada Business Coalition) – Some downtown businesses are raising a ruckus about their neighbors’ loud music in the wee hours of the morning.
It turns out there’s more to the story, and less to their complaints, than meets the eye.
In 2002 the Las Vegas City Council created the Fremont East Entertainment District. The idea was to attract night clubs, bars and restaurants to help revitalize this area of downtown adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience.
In order to help encourage these types of businesses the City Council relaxed some of the requirements that apply to other areas of the city. Among other things, the noise ordinance regulating how loud an establishment could be was lifted.
A couple years ago an entrepreneur came along with an idea for a night club for Fremont East called Azul Tequila, exactly the type of business the City was hoping to bring to the area. He and the property owner figured it was going to cost them a million bucks to get it off the ground.
At the time Azul Tequila applied for its special use permit, there was no opposition to the project. If anything its future neighbors expressed their approval.
The El Cortez Hotel and Casino across the street submitted a letter to the City in support of the project and even offered to let Azul Tequila patrons use its parking garage free of charge. The Fremont East District Board of Directors expressed its “enthusiastic support” of the proposal.
During the meeting in which this item was discussed, City Councilman Ricki Barlow, whose district includes Fremont East and who helped to air the current noise complaints to the press, not only demonstrated that he was fully aware the area was exempt from the noise ordinance but left no doubt about his support of this exemption (agenda item #129, starting at about 6:29:50 on the video).
Barlow specifically asked the City’s Chief Urban Redevelopment Officer, Scott Adams, about whether the noise ordinance applied to this area.
Adams said, “The recently amended provisions exempt the entire six-block area from the provisions of the city noise ordinance.”
“So the applicant falls within that area, correct?” Barlow replied.
“That’s correct. So this property would be exempt from the noise ordinance,” stated Adams.
In addition it was Barlow who made the motion to remove two conditions staff had asked to be attached to Azul Tequila’s permit, one of which would have prohibited outdoor music after 2 a.m. After Adams informed Barlow that Adams could not recall conditions being imposed on use permits within the Entertainment District previously, the Councilman stated that he wished to remove the conditions.
Barlow explained, “I believe that’s what we’re trying to do is create a lively entertainment area for tourists and residents alike that want to hang out to the wee hours of the morning and have a good time in the downtown area.”
Furthermore, later that same month the City imposed a Special Improvement District (SID) assessment on businesses in the District to help fund improvements to walkways and other public areas. Part of the justification for the SID was the increase in value property owners could expect because of the area’s designation. None of those who are now grumbling about the noise raised an objection at that time, either.
Michael Cornthwaite, owner of several businesses in the area and a member of the Fremont East District Board of Directors, said, “The idea that there be a noise ordinance in an entertainment district is ludicrous. The same people complaining were either counting their money when the district was created or nowhere to be found.”
While we can certainly sympathize with long-time business owners who may be negatively affected by some of the changes taking place in this area, the fact is they were perfectly fine with these changes when they believed they would be to their advantage. It was only after the fact, and after others had invested huge sums of money based upon these changes, that complaints began.
The City and Councilman Barlow have made efforts to alleviate the conflict and have been active in working with Azul Tequila to find a solution but there’s really not much room to maneuver. According to Frank Elam, the owner of the property Azul sits on, any change in the noise ordinance would put the night club out of business.
Although weakness in the construction market saved them money from their original estimate, between the two of them Elam and the owner of Azul spent in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million dollars to open the place, including the life savings of Azul’s owner. This would all be lost if the business were forced to shut down because of a change in the noise ordinance.
If the City does rescind or modify the noise ordinance exemption for the Fremont East Entertainment District it would send a chilling message to others looking to invest in Las Vegas. Other potential investors in the area, including Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh, have indicated they would be hesitant to risk their money in the area if this exemption were lifted.
The City of Las Vegas created the Fremont East Entertainment District to attract a certain type of business to the area. They should not let themselves be swayed by the howling of those who now complain because those businesses are actually there.
(Michael Chamberlain is Executive Director of Nevada Business Coalition.)