03/04/2005 12:00AM

Downtown Las Vegas suddenly looking up

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It's said that a rising tide raises all ships. While the explosive growth in Las Vegas tourism is focused on properties on the Strip, downtown Las Vegas is enjoying its own renaissance.

According to a survey conducted by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a record 37.4 million visitors came to Las Vegas in 2004 and 21.3 million said their stay included a stop downtown.

That was a big increase over the 2003 survey when only about half of the 18.1 million visitors came to downtown.

An ad campaign "Vintage Vegas" is meant to attract visitors who remember the roots of Las Vegas and the way it used to be. It will also entice newcomers who've heard about the old-style Las Vegas and want to see it for themselves.

Television shows like "Lucky" and "Tilt" have focused on downtown and poker play, a natural extension of the Binion's Horseshoe World Series of Poker.

In the last two years, nearly every downtown property has changed hands as investors see value and a big upside in a seemingly depressed market.

Tim Poster and Tom Breitling have already bought and sold the Golden Nugget, cashing out for a quick nine-figure profit. The new buyer, Landry's, is a Houston-based seafood restaurant chain that owns and operates more than 300 eateries, including Joe's Crab Shack, The Crab House, Landry's Seafood House, and The Chart House.

Landry's CEO and president is Tilman Fertitta, a member of the Fertitta family that owns the Station Casinos empire.

Barrick Gaming owns the Plaza, the Las Vegas Club, the Gold Spike, and the Western. Barrick Gaming has aggressively looked to spruce up its properties and market to a new audience.

"The demand is there, but the product is not," said a very candid Stephen Crystal, president and co-founder of Barrick Gaming. "That's going to be the next wave."

Barrick hopes to begin construction by early next year of an expanded Plaza and redevelopment of other sites within its holdings.

Spring break in the desert

In an unusual alliance, the Plaza and National Lampoon Tours are booking four-night spring break packages for college students 21 or older during March. The travel company calls the packages "low price, high volume" to generate traffic to Las Vegas.

Yes, this is an extension of the National Lampoon brand that made films such as National Lampoon's Animal House, Van Wilder, and the Vacation series starring Chevy Chase.

National Lampoon has various product lines that successfully reach an audience marketers crave, young consumers.

Regardless of how successful marketing campaigns are, once the people come you have to show them an enjoyable time. And you have only one chance to make a first impression. The irony is the horse racing industry has the same scenario. It's one thing to get the people to try the product, another to have the facilities and customer service to meet your expectations.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.