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Growing the downtown Experience

Nov 2, 2004 3:25 AM


Joseph Schillaci is a turn-around guy. During his long career in the business world, the 63-year-old president and CEO of the Fremont Street Experience has helped turn around a couple of struggling businesses.

He says the key for the person at the top is to decide whether the company is facing a product gap or a communications gap, which is to say whether the problem is what is being offered or whether it is about getting the word out.

The Fremont Street Experience is a good product, Schillaci says, but that it’s frustrating trying to get "locals" to come downtown to experience the Experience.

"It’s sure a challenge to communicate to the local market that downtown and Fremont Street are a good place to visit," Schillaci said.

Schillaci can rattle off a number of improvements the Fremont Street Experience has undergone during his tenure, which began last December. He mentions the $17 million invested in new technology for the sound and light show over the street and the creation of a number of special events to bring people downtown. He said the Fremont Street Experience has launched a new advertising campaign that has helped with its "brand repositioning" and put the emphasis on the "vintage Vegas" theme.

Schillaci, who worked for the Six Flags theme park company for 17 years, the last seven as its president, said, "We’ve done a total resurfacing of the pedestrian mall. It’s part of a re-landscaping. I call it the revitalization of the brand."

A Vietnam veteran and 1972 graduate of the University of Pittsburg with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Schillaci agrees that the fate of downtown Las Vegas rests to a large extent on what develops with the monorail, Neonopolis and the 61 acres of land the city owns behind the Plaza.

He says the malfunctioning monorail, which is again out of service, has hit a "speed bump," but should be successful over the long term.

Regarding Neonopolis, one of Fremont Street’s higher profile tenants, Schillaci says there have been "some real issues with the management of the operation," but he is hopeful that once the sale of the property is completed, the venue can be turned into another attraction for the street.

In his own building, which is directly across the pedestrian mall from the Neonopolis, Schillaci said a new tenant is going to open a country-and-western themed bar to replace a defunct saloon and restaurant. He said he expects the lease for the 36,000-square-foot property on the first floor to be signed before of end of this week.

There are other highlights on the Fremont Street calendar, such as a Patriots Party scheduled for Nov. 13-14, and a downtown ho-down planned for Dec. 2. After that, of course, comes the annual New Year’s Eve bash, which Schillaci says will feature the rock band B.T.O. and singer Morris Day, and will have the theme of "100 years of doing it our way" as Las Vegas begins its centennial celebrations.

It’s a struggle, Schillaci says, to come up with promotions that would be attractive to both locals and tourists, but so far he has had two — one aimed at Harley-Davidson aficionados and the other targeted at NASCAR fans. He says one of his goals for Fremont Street is to make it the military reunion capital of the world.

Schillaci, who has been married for 36 years and has two children ages 33 and 30, says his biggest fear is one that he hesitates to mention, and that is another attack on the U.S. by terrorists. But downtown will have "a much better controlled environment" for New Year’s Eve as opposed to the Strip because Fremont Street will be dealing with about 25,000 revelers as opposed to the 300,000 he expects to be partying on the Strip.

Besides planning events for the public, running the Fremont Street Experience involves satisfying the downtown casinos who fund the operation.

"We’re dealing with multiple constituencies," he said, meaning that he answers to the heads of the downtown resorts, a group that has recently seen a substantial turnover in its ranks. "We’ve had so much new blood come in."

One of the casinos’ concerns was the number of kiosks and vendors operating on the mall last summer. Dealing with the problem resulted in unfavorable publicity for the Fremont Street Experience.

Schillaci says the brouhaha over the evicted vendors was an example of American journalism at its worst. He said that, far from wiping out the 45 existing kiosks as reported, the decision was made to not renew the licenses of five of the 10 vendors who were operating kiosks. And the entrepreneurs were given 10 days notice to evacuate the premises rather than the required three days.

He says the over reaction in the media was out of proportion to the decision that had been reached. When he read the stories that depicted the action as a saga of greedy casinos evicting hard-working vendors trying to eke out a living, his reaction was "give me a break."

But Schillaci, who relaxes by reading novels, golfing and traveling with his wife to California and Mexico, says that overall his stint as president and CEO of the Fremont Street Experience has been thoroughly enjoyable.

"Speaking from the heart, I’ve had a ball," he said. "I’ve become passionate about downtown. We are not the Strip and I don’t apologize for that. We are the street that started it all. This has been a lot of fun."