What a difference a few years make

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) – Las Vegans know the Arts District as the place that hosts First Friday and unique locally-owned shops and restaurants.

Some might also remember a time, less than a decade ago, when the area did not seem up for that kind of development.

“When we came in, the alleys were dirt,” James Trees, owner of Esther’s Kitchen, told FOX5. “We used to joke around that you could fire a cannon off down Main Street and you would never injure anybody.”

Trees took a chance on the Arts District seven years ago, opening up his restaurant on California Avenue a block away from Main Street. He says it was a challenge to gain footing in the area.

“When we first opened, we couldn’t find an Uber driver who knew how to get to the restaurant,” he said, laughing.

Eventually, Trees grew his customer base, getting rave reviews of his food. As a result, he recently found himself needing to upsize, moving just one door down the road on the corner of California and Main.

“If you have not been to Esther’s Kitchen for lunch hour – man, sometimes that place is so busy and packed,” Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz said on a walk with a FOX5 camera crew down Main Street.

Diaz described the changes she’s seen in her district.

“We’ve got a bunch of stuff that didn’t exist maybe a decade or two ago,” she said. “It was highly industrial in nature. A lot of mechanic shops.”

During the area’s transition into its current form, Trees saw opportunity.

“When I signed my lease seven years ago, it was the wild west,” he said. “And we were seeing things and people were trying things to see if they worked here… It was a really interesting time to be in the Arts District because we didn’t know what it was going to be.”

Trees gives credit to his fellow local business owners and the creatives who moved into the neighborhood for its rapid and organic growth.

“You have real entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s not something that’s just like, a developer plans a center and all of a sudden, it’s fake.”

Las Vegas has also invested in the area.

“This development wouldn’t be happening if we weren’t upgrading the sewer system as we’re doing the streets or upgrading the internet connectivity,” Diaz noted, while also giving credit to the people living and working there. “The artist community is what really identified this as a special place and brought their talents and their creativity.”

Those people, she says, made something of their own out of the old auto shops that used to dominate Main Street.

“For the most part, we’ve kept the bones of the old structures,” she said. “Take an old building and breathe into it new life. That’s kind of what’s happened building by building. Block by block.”

Trees, who is moving from a building more than a century old to one that’s only a couple of decades younger, says the Arts District represents one of the most authentic parts of his hometown.

“Everything about the Arts District is real,” he said. “These are real entrepreneurs, real independent businesses, really trying to create something for Las Vegas that it doesn’t have. Which is a community of artists, a community of restaurants and bars.”

Trees’ new location on Main and California, which more than doubles his seating space, is set to open on February 29.

Just two blocks east on California, an apartment complex with more than 300 units is being built. Diaz says that with the booming business development in the Arts District, we can expect to see more housing being built there as well.

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