LAS VEGAS — East Fremont Street was once a section of Las Vegas thick with surly ladies of the evening and ne’er-do-wells stewed on booze and drugs. In short, you wouldn’t come here after dark. You probably wouldn’t come here before dark either.
But on a broiling hot day earlier this month, Ryan Doherty gave a tour of a very different East Fremont Street, which now goes by the slightly classier name Fremont East Entertainment District. This tour featured a growing number of bars and restaurants, along with 30 massive murals painted by world-famous street artists.
“Five or 10 years ago, this is not a place you would want to be,” Doherty said while pointing out a massive mural from Shepard Fairey. “Now I’d like to think it’s an alternative to the Strip.”
Doherty is a force behind the area’s new image. He and his business partner, Justin Weniger, have opened two restaurants in Fremont East. They also oversee a massive annual music and art festival that brings tens of thousands to the previously blighted neighborhood every September.
As Doherty talks, there is an occasional word or two that slips out in an accent familiar to Bostonians, and perhaps fans of second-rate Mark Wahlberg movies. Doherty is a native of Charlestown. He grew up in Malden and spent time at the University of Massachusetts Amherst before making his escape to Las Vegas. He paid homage to his upbringing by naming one of his restaurants Commonwealth, which he describes as “very much built as a Boston bar.”
Think of Fremont East as Vegas’s new, human-scale destination for those not keen on getting mowed down by crowds on the Strip, or blinded by the glare of the electronic billboards. It’s an appealing amuse-bouche to bigger-than-life craziness of the mega-casinos. It’s also an escape from the nearby Fremont Street Experience. There are no LED canopies or ziplines in the Fremont East District.
“I think downtown appeals to a younger generation,” he said. “Financially, you can have a big night out downtown because we’re an affordable option. It’s expensive to party on the Strip now.”
His pitch is convincing, and it doesn’t hurt that Doherty is a charmer with Hollywood hair.
Talk to locals, and they’ll tell you that Fremont East is the place they go to grab a drink or have dinner. Slowly, it’s transforming into an actual neighborhood. Condos are starting to go up.
“Downtown is kind of pure,” Doherty said. “Once you get past the glitz of the Strip and get downtown, people are like, ‘Oh, this place is cool.’ But for a long time no one ever came here.”
Downtown’s big turnabout began in 2013 when Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh relocated his Amazon-owned shoe company to the downtown district. He invested $350 million of his own money to help build or support restaurants, coffee shops, and a hotel. He took over the building that was once city hall in the rundown area. He opened up a park constructed of recycled shipping containers in 2015. Those old containers are now occupied by shops and restaurants.
“Because of Tony and what we’ve been doing with his small business investment, the growth is really accelerated compared to other cities,” Doherty said. “We are probably going to have another 50 businesses open up in the next five years. It’s crazy. We have 10 new bars, restaurants, coffee shops, you name it, happening every year. It’s a lot.”
Doherty, 41, made a name for himself quickly in Vegas’s nightlife scene in his 20s, eventually partnering with Weniger. The pair publish several publications and websites through their company Wendoh Media in addition to owning the two restaurants and running the music festival.
He hopes Fremont will eventually rival Miami’s Wynwood Arts District or the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego. Doherty pointed out the highlights of the neighborhood as he trudged through the 120 degree heat.
All of the murals he excitedly described are part of the annual Life Is Beautiful festival that he runs with Weniger. This year the festival, which takes place Sept. 22-24, features Chance the Rapper, Muse, Gorillaz, Lorde, Blink-182, the xx, Kaskade, and Wiz Khalifa.
Because the lower end of the neighborhood is still filled with vacant properties and parking lots, 18 very large square blocks are fenced off to accommodate Life Is Beautiful. With so much space, Doherty and Weniger have an opportunity to experiment with pop-up art galleries, comedy, and culinary offerings between the massive stages where the headliners perform. Attendance this year is expected to reach 50,000 a day.
“Most people come to Vegas two or three days,” he said. “They sort of just burn out. They go hard as soon as they land. But this is a neighborhood where they can have fun for a night, and not leave completely drained.”