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Lost in downtown?

Aug 10, 2004 6:40 AM

Richard Burgel says his place of business is the best-kept secret in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he’s probably right.

His place, the Lost Vegas Gambling Museum and Store, is on the first floor of Neonopolis, a city-supported business venture that is on life-support and will remain that way until a new owner for the entertainment and retail venue can be located.

In the meantime, all Burgel can do is stand by helplessly while his business neighbors flee the big building on Fremont Street like rats deserting a sinking ship, making it harder and harder for him to keep his nose above water.

According to Burgel, a 50-year-old transplant from New Jersey and Miami who has lived in Las Vegas for 12 years, Neonopolis has been gasping for air since its grand opening, an event that left city officials chagrinned when only about half of the expected crowd showed up for the cameras for the highly-publicized event.

Since then, Neonopolis’ businesses have been circling the drain, Burgel says.

His museum and store is a treasure trove of memorabilia and collectibles from bygone eras in Las Vegas; those days when larger-than-life figures including Elvis, the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe were making the city their playpen.

There are also reminders of more recent cultural phenomenon, including the television series "The Sopranos" and the hit movie "Goodfellas."

Not everything in the myriad collection of artifacts has to do with Italian-American criminals as they were depicted on both the big and little screens. The Lost Vegas Gambling Museum and Store also offers for sale: plates, matchbooks, slot machine replicas, tons of gambling chips, gag license plates, retro concert posters, neon clocks, lots of portraits of celebrities, and, of course, plenty of T-shirts, among other things.

The store also has an, ahem, educational aspect as shown by a booklet on sale, the title of which is "Cathouse Connection: A Guide for Brothel Collectibles."

The museum portion of the business, which costs $2.50 to explore, deals with the city’s history and development. No overview of Las Vegas’ past would be complete without mention of Howard Hughes, of course. Sure enough, amid the newspapers shouting their historic headlines and stories of Hoover Dam, there is a picture of the Silver Slipper with an inscription: Howard Hughes bought the Silver Slipper across from his suite at the Desert Inn so he could turn off the bright Slipper lights.

Burgel said he and his wife own a large motor home and they have traveled around the West hitting antique sales, thrift stores and estate sales.

He said tourists "bring stuff home from Las Vegas and put it in a drawer. When they die, the family sells it" at estate sales and he has been there to scoop it up. He adds, however, that "collectibles streams have dried up. It’s in somebody’s collection and you can’t get it anywhere."

Burgel, who worked as a cabana boy in Miami when he was a teenager and had Meyer Lansky, Morris Landsburg and Ben Jaffee among his customers, calls himself "a half-ass historian." His father was an aircraft mechanic for Eastern Airlines, so as a youngster he use to fly for free to Cuba and the Bahamas where he collected casino chips.

He later was employed by a casino, working as a baccarat dealer and supervisor at Caesars Palace. His wife was also working as a baccarat dealer when he met her and after they were married, they decided that the gaming lifestyle would put a strain on their marriage so he left the field and began his own business dealing in copying and fax machines. He said his business did well enough to enable him to retire and pursue his longstanding interest in casino memorabilia and become a dealer on E-bay. He also opened a memorabilia and collectibles store inside the Tropicana Hotel.

With his background, it is not surprising that the Lost Vegas Gambling Museum and Store are stuffed with mementos of Las Vegas’ past. But while there is no lack of attractions in either the store or the museum, there is a shortage of customers. As Burgel puts it, business "is not what we expect. But we’re paying the bills."

Other businesses have decided to quit paying their bills. Since he opened the museum in December, Burgel has watched as his neighbors at Neonopolis have trudged out the door. He ticks them off on his fingers: a sports memorabilia place, an Asian souvenir store, a luggage and watches "guy," a store with home décor items from Mexico, a hot dog and lemonade outlet, three kiosks, a candy apple and pretzel operation, a woman’s clothing store, and "a weird gift shop (with) witchcraft kind of stuff."

Burgel says the exodus is playing havoc with his bottom line. "I need neighbors to help with the foot traffic," he said. "They need to fill empty spaces."

The "they" he refers to is C.B. Richard Ellis, the company managing the property until Prudential Insurance, the owner, can unload it. He thinks the Ellis Company might be a tad too selective in evaluating applications for space at the Neonopolis.

"They’ve got their heads up their ---. They think this is Forums Shops (at Caesars Palace). There are a lot of guys who have $100,000 but they don’t have a million" to open a business in the Neonopolis.

He said he can’t really fault C. B. Richard Ellis for not being more sensitive to the needs of the tenants at the Neonopolis. He said "management is polite but distant" which is somewhat understandable since "their job is to sell the property" and its "not their business to manage (an) entertainment complex."

However, even at that, "the fact that the property is up for sale is a secret," he said, mentioning that there are no signs plastered on the outside walls pointing out its availability.

C.B. Richard Ellis officials failed to respond to repeated requests for reaction by Gaming Today.

Burgel, who is filling up the window next to his store with artifacts to give the area around his place a less deserted look, said "a casino interest should have this place and use it as a feeder" to get people into its hotel. He said the Neonopolis "should have more entertainment venues (and) they need to have gaming here. People aren’t going to sit there and pay $4 for a beer" and not be able to play video poker from their bar stool.

He said tourists "don’t know you can park downstairs. There are two levels (for parking) and they’re empty."

Burgel said the Neonopolis doesn’t do much better with the people who live in Las Vegas. "The locals don’t know it’s here. There’s no marketing to locals at all."

He puts part of the blame on the name itself, saying the word Neonopolis was "a poor marketing choice. The name is the worst thing. It’s a killer."

He also thinks the parking rates should be cheaper, perhaps by making the first hour free.

He says the biggest positive surprise since he opened the Neonopolis store has been the support from city government. "They’ve been very helpful," he says.

The biggest negative surprise has been the absence of any marketing effort by the Neonopolis and the failure to lease the empty stores. He said he has done some marketing by himself and has two 48-foot billboards advertising his stores and has coupons for his stores being distributed.

Still, until a new owner steps forward, he says he is in "turmoil," and until that changes, "everybody is on hold. I’m in limbo."