LAS VEGAS -- There’s a feudin’ and a fussin’ under the Fremont Street Experience canopy that’s pitting small casino owner Steve Burnstine against longtime downtown powerhouse properties the Golden Nugget and the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, as well as the president of the Experience and Las Vegas city government.
As the relationship mavens like to say, it’s complicated.
At the most basic level, it’s just another fight over selling liquor and making money. But depending on the legal definition of “a bar,” the fuss may mean that the Golden Nugget and the Golden Gate will have to drastically scale back their outdoor alcohol sales.
District Court Judge Betsy Gonzalez recently ruled that a city ordinance defining “a bar” as one bar, not two, means the casinos, which each operate two outdoor bars, now violate city code.
Burnstine owns the Mermaids casino, La Bayou casino and the longtime Fremont Street adult entertainment mainstay, Girls of Glitter Gulch. He is not a member of the Fremont Street Experience like the casinos he is suing — the Golden Nugget, the Golden Gate, the D, the Four Queens, and Binion’s, which all have outside bars on the mall.
Burnstine’s attorney, Jim Jimmerson, cast a wide net last August, suing the Experience, the hotels, the city and Mayor Carolyn Goodman. But in court documents Burnstine’s anger is focused on Jeff Victor, president of the five-block Fremont Street Experience, and Mark Brandenburg, owner of the Golden Gate.
Burnstine complains that Victor denied him the right to set up a permanent bar in front of Mermaid’s and La Bayou, his two properties operated under Granite Gaming Group, but let Brandenburg put a pop-up bar outside Mermaids, across the mall from the Golden Gate.
The dispute between liquor purveyors spilled over to the city of Las Vegas, which has been wrestling with issues involving liquor sales on Fremont Street.
Experience managers want the city to ban packaged liquor sales at retail stores, yet they allow their own members to build outdoor, pop-up and temporary bars.
On Feb. 18 three city council members sitting as a recommending committee discussed an ordinance to clarify that “a bar” means multiple bars, but the change failed to pass because the trio — Ricki Barlow, Stavros Anthony and Bob Coffin — couldn’t agree.
Barlow, who represents the area, noted that “Fremont Street Experience came to us and said, ‘We don’t want any additional liquor stores.’ But on the other hand, it’s okay for downtown properties to have multiple bars. Liquor is liquor. Whether you buy it in the store or you buy it in a glass, liquor is liquor. So to me, you can’t speak out of both sides of your mouth.”
City Attorney Brad Jerbic said he will soon meet council members to see if he can get some direction about what kind of ordinance they really want. Do they want to limit outside bars to one per property? Do they want to grandfather in the existing bars, which would mean the Golden Nugget and the Golden Gate could keep theirs? Or is there already enough easy access to alcohol under the canopy without adding more? Should retail stores sell package alcohol at all?
“The judge said our ordinance limits the bars to one bar (on Fremont Street Experience) but our staff thought “a bar” meant multiple bars,” Jerbic said Thursday. “It’s now a political decision, not a legal decision.”
Judge Gonzalez granted a 10-day stay, giving the hotel-casinos time to appeal before her order is enacted.
Attorney William Urga didn’t return a call Thursday or Friday, but is expected to appeal on behalf of the hotels.
Hotels with single outdoor bars include the D, Binion’s, and the Four Queens. Binion’s was in the process of building a second bar, which could not open if the restraining order remains in place.
Jimmerson said the restraining order comes as Las Vegas is rethinking liquor sales, yet the city has essentially delegated almost all control over Fremont Street Experience to its president and board, who are not required to hold open meetings or record meeting minutes for public consumption.
In court documents, he called the members of the experience a “cartel’ that discriminates against nonmembers such as Burnstine and ABC Stores. The lawsuit asks for monetary damages, alleging Burnstine has been hurt financially and that Experience board members used unfair trade practices. Jimmerson claims Victor told all outdoor bar operators to charge the same amount — $4 for mixed drinks; $3 for beer — in what amounts to “price-fixing” at “inflated prices.”
Jerbic and Goodman have tried to negotiate a settlement of the civil suit, to no avail.
ARGUING THE LAW
Jerbic said that 17 years ago the city contracted with the Fremont Street Experience to manage and control the mall. That includes covering the cost of the canopy light show, computers, security, cleaning and everything else. His position is that the contract means the city has no control over the pedestrian mall.
Burnstine argues the city cannot turn over management to a private operator who violates constitutional rights of due process and equal access, or who discriminates against those who are not dues-paying Experience members.
Jimmerson predicted it could be a year before the case gets to trial, and during that year, all the hotels might be limited to one bar.
Meanwhile, City Council members are going to have to address the interrelated liquor issues, dealing with far more than changing verbiage from “a bar” to “more than one bar.”
Barlow said at the recommending committee he’s leaning toward reducing the number of places where liquor is sold, rather than expanding.
“This is like Pandora’s box to me,” he said.
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