An old Petula Clark song from the 1960s extolled the virtues of going downtown, where you could “just listen to the music of the traffic in the city/Linger on the sidewalk, where the neon signs are pretty.” She probably wasn’t singing about Downtown Las Vegas, and it was decades before the Las Vegas Strip’s red-headed stepchild would see a major revival, after falling on hard times following the end of the Elvis years. But now 45-year-old Derek Stevens -the new Steve Wynn of Sin City’s Downtown- is seeing to it that Downtown Las Vegas gets to go to the ball.
While all of the Downtown area has been slowly coming back to life, Stevens can certainly take credit for helping to make Fremont Street – which he is financially invested in – into a bonafide tourist attraction. Once crawling with those pushed off of the Strip by tight casino security – lower echelon hookers, drug dealers, addicts, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells – Downtown is now safer, cleaner and all in all, more fun than it has been in eons.
Primarily, Stevens has turned two ramshackle and failing casino properties – the Golden Gate and the D Las Vegas (formerly Fitzgeralds) into far more hip and happening places to see and be seen. Screened onto the front of the D, for example, are just a woman’s elegantly heeled legs sticking straight up in the air. (As always, Vegas ad campaigns are nothing if not subtle.)
Stevens’ approach to the new look and feel of these properties was developed the old-fashioned way: by talking to customers and finding out what they wanted. “That’s why I built the Longbar,” he said, referring to a 100-foot-long bar with 15 flat-screen TVs that always show various sporting events. “This is what I kind of dreamed about putting in my basement, only it wouldn’t fit. That’s who I am; I like to talk with the customers.”
Now, some 16 months after taking over the run-down Fitzgeralds, the 640-room D is thriving. Stevens’ background as a former auto parts dealer from Michigan has apparently stood him in good stead with employees and customers alike, and in addition to the D, he owns a small piece of the Strip’s Riviera, and also spent $12 million to renovate Golden Gate – of which he now holds a 60 percent share – and added a five-story hotel tower.
“At both the Golden Gate and the D, he’s made changes, like the outdoor bars and dancing dealers, that have pumped up the energy level and made the places stand out,” said David D. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Along with the changes at the Plaza and Golden Nugget and the back-to-basics approach of the El Cortez, they’ve given Downtown a real identity outside of ‘less expensive than the Strip.’ ”
Also a part-owner of the heart of Downtown, the Fremont Street Experience, Stevens has been a bit of a paramedic for the whole area: bringing it back to life.