Downtown Las Vegas has seen rapid change in the past decade. If you want to get an idea of where it’s headed in the future, take a look at the single city block along Third Street between Carson and Bridger avenues. That’s where you’ll find the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, an outdoor venue that until recently was best described as a parking lot.
“We took another real big step forward this year when we turfed the entire venue. I don’t think anybody in the last 12 months has called it a parking lot anymore,” said Derek Stevens, who opened the versatile space in 2014 as a complement to the Fremont Street casinos he owns, The D and the Golden Gate.
It began as a concert space — its first act was alt-pop duo Capital Cities — but was always intended to host any event, and in its first few years it’s been home to boxing events, a UNLV Runnin’ Rebels season-opening basketball practice, a snowboarding competition, the Las Rageous hard rock music festival, the world’s richest barbecue contest and much more.
“We were kind of throwing everything out there, and that’s what it was all about because my goal was to get as many different people Downtown and right next to our place as we possibly could,” Stevens said, acknowledging he’s taken risks with some events, such as electronic dance music concerts that haven’t traditionally thrived Downtown. “How do you know something doesn’t work if nobody’s ever tried it? Let’s go to bat, and if we strike out, we strike out. We’ll go back to the dugout and try something else next time, but let’s keep trying and see what happens.”
Stevens has had more success than failed attempts since he started doing business Downtown in 2006 when he first invested in the Golden Gate. With his brother, Greg, the Michigan native acquired, renovated and expanded the historic Fremont Street property, which led to the purchase of Fitzgerald’s and its wholesale evolution into The D. The DLVEC rests behind The D, essentially functioning as the rejuvenated casino’s entertainment venue.
“On Fremont Street, tourists are still paying the bills. It’s a very tourist-oriented demographic,” Stevens said.
“The Strip became dominant in the late ’80s and ’90s, and Las Vegas was expanding, and the element of suburbia was kicking in. The locals [gaming] market ended up [dominating] on the flanks. People like to gamble and get some entertainment and have a few drinks close to where they live.”
Downtown Las Vegas started drawing younger locals seeking entertainment because of redevelopment in the Fremont East area, spurred by Zappos’ move to the former Las Vegas City Hall building. “It’s a reflection of changing national trends where young people want to be around the hub of the city.’ Stevens said. “They’re real quick with Uber or Lyft and don’t want to deal with [driving]. They just want to come Downtown and hang out.”
So he’s taken a big, broad step beyond development by harnessing the power of sports. The D aligned itself with the Vegas Golden Knights through corporate sponsorship very early on, before the inaugural season began and the team became a true phenomenon. The DLVEC hosted hockey watch parties throughout the season that attracted thousands of rabid local fans seeking to connect with the team and their community.
“What we wanted to do was a little different, because it’s clearly an all-local play,” he said. “When we had the watch party for the playoff game, it’s pretty amazing to think we’re looking at 95 percent of 6,000 people are locals. That’s a very different scenario than if we have a concert like Las Rageous, where 80 percent of tickets are purchased by people outside the state of Nevada.”
On Wednesday, the events center will host a Golden Knights Fan Fest, welcoming the beloved NHL team back for the 2018-19 season. The free, family-friendly event will include an onstage Q&A session with players, appearances by Chance the mascot, the Golden Aces and more. It’s a big, bright example of how Stevens has been working ahead of the curve to inject new life into Downtown development and bring locals back.
Stevens was a confident initial investor in local pro sports because he’d seen his hometown community latch onto their teams, particularly in the case of the Detroit Red Wings. He already knew what Las Vegas learned this past year — hockey creates dedicated fans.
“I remember growing up when the Red Wings would get into the second or third round of the playoffs, all of a sudden there would be nights where you’d normally have massive traffic jams, but the freeways would lighten up.” Stevens said. “Everybody wanted to either get home or get to a location to watch the game together, it had that big of an impact on the community. We saw that here, too. The Vegas Golden Knights had the unique ability to change people’s schedules.”
The DLVEC will be hosting more Golden Knights watch parties this season as well as bringing back its Sunday NFL Downtown Watch Zone events. The facility has been upgraded, too, adding a makeshift pool with a swim-up bar, a classic Vegas amenity.
Bringing locals to the original heart of the city is now part of normal day-to-day operations for Stevens. He has another huge Downtown project on the horizon: Building a brand new casino resort along the Fremont Street Experience corridor on the former site of the Las Vegas Club. The company purchased the property almost three years ago and snagged many of the surrounding buildings, including the Mermaids casino and Glitter Gulch strip club, eventually demolishing everything for a fresh start.
Stevens is keeping details to himself but early plans call for a 777-room hotel tower, a 1,488-space parking garage and a 117,000-square-foot casino space.
“It’s been a long time in Las Vegas since anything new was built, but I think some of the projects coming up in the next couple years remind me of decades ago when there were so many new reasons to make people come to Las Vegas,” Stevens said. “We’re really excited about what we’ve created and designed. And I feel much better doing this today than if we would have done it five years ago because the scope of the project would have been much different. I’m really excited about what we’ve got now.”