Clinging to The Code

Visiting with the Review-Journal editorial board a few weeks back to discuss his run for the open Ward Two Las Vegas City Council seat, former state Sen. and local businessman Bob Beers declared one of his goals if elected would be to “take down the city’s ‘Not Open for Business’ sign.”

Anyone who’s ever tried to negotiate the codes and regulations necessary to set up shop within the city limits knows what Mr. Beers means.

Even if you’re re-opening a premises considered “okey-dokey” for its former tenant, suddenly city inspectors want you to spend tens of thousands of dollars to re-do lighting, plumbing, lavatories, handicapped access.

Restaurateur Andre Rochat, who has since opened upscale eateries within county jurisdiction on The Strip and no longer attempts to do business downtown, was famously required by city “inspectors” to build a $100,000 steel superstructure over a couple of sidewalk tables at his short-lived Frogeez on Fourth Street, “sturdy enough to hold up a city bus if one should fall on it.”

The operators of the nightclub Azul Tequila were lured downtown to Seventh Street and Ogden by city officials claiming they wanted to foster a late-night music scene. When neighbors complained about the noise, the city last fall required the owner and operator to spend another $100,000 enclosing their outdoor concert venue.

“Temporary banners” have to come down after 60 days. Permits for permanent signs can then be “pulled” by only a small number of sign companies, which enjoy a de facto collective city monopoly, and charge accordingly.

If you get that far, the meter maids will swarm your potential customers like mosquitoes, while “code inspectors” arrive to inform you you’re about to be fined for daring to hold a parking lot sale in your own parking lot without a “special permit” — or because the built-in thermometer in your freezer is “positioned improperly.”

And should you have the temerity to propose offering your customers food, alcohol, live music, or slot machines, you’ve hardly scratched the surface.

When the city of Las Vegas decided to waive the standard $20,000 liquor license fee (just enough to cover processing costs, which is the definition of a “fee” and how it differs from a “tax,” right?) for people willing to open a tavern in the Mexican used-furniture cinderblock promenade now dubbed the “Downtown Arts District,” sisters Pam and Christina Dylag figured everything was coming up roses.

After leaving Las Vegas for college and to travel, the two marks — er, that is to say, sisters were ready to return and invest tens of thousands of dollars into starting their own business. The Velveteen Rabbit would be a boutique tavern named after their favorite children’s book, offering “crafted cocktails,” unique draft beers and independent music.

“The reason we left was because places like this weren’t here,” says Pam Dylag, 27.

And why do you suppose that is?

As allowed by code, the Dylags would like to put five slot machines in their tavern — envisioned in what is now the bombed-out shell of a cinderblock structure on Main Street just south of Charleston.

But they hadn’t figured on the recent legal battle between big casino operators and the Dottie’s tavern chain. Since slot machines are supposedly allowed in taverns only when the slot revenue is “incidental” to tavern operation, casino owners noticing the burgeoning number of Dottie’s — slot parlors whose gesture toward “food service” usually amounts to a single employee providing peanuts and soda pop — and raised a hue and cry.

As a result, state regulations would now appear to require an enterprise like the Dylags’ — presuming they want the revenue from those five slot machines — to provide 2,000 square feet of public space and a full kitchen.

“It is me and my sister; we’ve been saving our own money,” protests Pam Dylag. “There is just no way. We don’t have the extra capital to put into a kitchen.”

So the sisters and their would-be slot route operator, Eagle Rock Gaming, are now applying for a waiver from the state Gaming Control Board and the Nevada Gaming Commission.

The sisters are the first to seek such a waiver. The fate of their struggle could determine whether other taverns manage to open in the downtown Arts District.

Since the city is promoting the district, you’d think the city would help. But city spokesgal Diana Paul refers matters back to state regulators.

Wes Myles, owner of the building where the Dylag sisters want to open, says he’s disappointed city staff isn’t offering more help. But is he surprised?

“There’s this assumption that all businesspeople are wealthy and sophisticated,” says Myles, who also owns the Arts Factory.

“The Gaming Control Board regulations have an unintended consequence, and that is to make it tough on a lot of little people,” adds Ward 3 Councilman Bob Coffin, a former legislator.

Downtown Las Vegas has been “about to boom” for 25 years. Brave (or foolhardy) entrepreneurs keep trying.

Try asking members of the City Council if it isn’t time to help them by taking a scythe to this thicket of regulatory red tape, repealing 60 or 70 percent of the current code and laying off half their enforcers. They’ll look at you like you’re speaking a foreign language.

I asked that question of Planning Commission member Ric Truesdell at HIS Second Ward endorsement interview, earlier this month. (On Tuesday, Truesdell lost to Beers, somewhat dramatically.)

“Oh, you’ve got to have the CODE,” Mr. Truesdell replied, as though I’d asked one of the Dylags’ future customers to give up his pocket flask.

3 Comments to “Clinging to The Code”

  1. Branch Shepherd Says:

    Back in the 80s and early 90s, I ran lights for a very successful A-Circuit all female hard rock band.
    We used to play at the Moby Grape, the Main Gate and Club Rock. Well the first time we arrived we were told that in Vegas it was forbidden to have orange extension cords on stage, but not to worry, good old Mike over here has a cart load of approved black cords. These were available for a ‘nominal’ (YIKES!!) fee. Fortunately, I had always used black cords for staging reasons. But like you said, any way that they could find to discourage repeat business has probably been explored. When last we were there, the Excalibur was the new thing, now I fear that I would not recognize the place.

  2. liberranter Says:

    “The Gaming Control Board regulations have an unintended consequence, and that is to make it tough on a lot of little people,”

    Given that it is “big people” who control the Gaming Board (and all similar state-corporate bureaucracies), I have a very hard time believing that such consequences are truly “unintentional.”

  3. MamaLiberty Says:

    liberranter, you stole my line. 🙂

    Exactly what is “unintended” about the consequence of reduced competition for the “big guys?” Maybe the death of downtown Las Vegas… but not much else.

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