If Fredericksburg's sprawling Central Park mall doesn't remotely look like the vast green expanses of New York's Central Park, the "Uptown" section of the mall seems even more ironically named.
First, you get there by taking a left at the Men's Warehouse and passing through the welcoming pillars of Chuck E. Cheese's and Riggs Seafood & Steak House. Two- and three-story buildings are pink and turquoise in a faux art deco style, but at nightfall the Uptown really shows what it's known for: neon.
It's everywhere -- in hot pink and bright green piping running up and down the buildings, in electric purple rings around pillars. Amid the American mall predictability of Central Park, Uptown stands out as a mini neon city, visible not only from around the entire mall but also from Interstate 95.
"It's a Central Park trademark," said Jay Padgett, 34, who tends bar at Uncle Sam's club in Uptown, which has narrow streets and was supposed to be a newish, old-style downtown. "It's sort of a symbol of Fredericksburg."
Being a Central Park trademark is a big deal in the Fredericksburg area, where the liveliest nightlife takes place at the mall -- the "power center," as the mall's developers call it. While historic downtown Fredericksburg has a few beloved bars and high-end eateries -- and there are devotees of clubs and watering holes in Stafford and Spotsylvania -- it's Central Park where the region's masses come at night -- and increasingly so.
But as the region has become more crowded and business more competitive, the mall's developers want to make Central Park more uniform, more upscale, "more like Reston Town Center," said Jim Wheeler, executive vice president of Rappaport Co., co-owner of Uptown.
And that means Uptown's neon has to go.
The developers acknowledge that people seem to like the flashy and distinctive design. But they say they have to do something to help the Uptown section, which is anchored by Uncle Sam's, perhaps the region's most successful nightclub. Uptown has had trouble keeping other entertainment tenants.
Jud Honaker, president of the commercial arm of Central Park's developer, the Silver Cos., said the company originally picked the pseudo Miami Beach style in hopes of appeasing residents who feared that Uptown would hurt the historic downtown.
"We were catching grief for everything we did," he said. "So to be sensitive to downtown, we went the other way. I think we went too far. I've never been enamored of it."
He also blamed Uptown's stumbles in part on the parking -- almost all of it behind the buildings. Parking will be redesigned when the neon is taken down next month, and the buildings will be painted beige to match the rest of the mall.
Uptown's facelift is part of the evolution of the region's nightlife from a small town with small watering holes to a growing area that looks good to franchisers. In addition to Uncle Sam's, which opened in 2002 and draws about 800 people on a typical weekend night, among the most crowded night spots in the Fredericksburg area most nights are Buffalo Wild Wings and Cheeseburger in Paradise, chains that opened in the mall in the past 18 months.
"Monday nights, everyone's at Cheeseburger," said Christopher Brown, 25, a UPS driver whose route is the 130 businesses in the Central Park mall. Late Thursday night, the Spotsylvania resident was at Buffalo Wild Wings with a friend, making his way through four tins of wings and a few beers as dozens of TV screens suspended from the ceiling flashed sporting events and a DJ played 1980s hip-hop. "Actually, most nights I'm either here or Cheeseburger."
Local officials said the Central Park area generated about $3.26 million in meals tax revenue last year, compared with $1.79 million in the rest of the city. That's up from $2.59 million for Central Park area restaurants in 2002, compared with $1.77 million in the rest of the city that year.
Through June of this year, the mall's 67 restaurants brought in about twice as much as the 83 restaurants in the rest of the city, according to city revenue data.
"The city isn't growing as rapidly, and the restaurants in the city aren't high-volume," said Karen Hedelt, manager of tourism development for Fredericksburg.
Uncle Sam's says the key to their success is variety: Tuesday nights are for house music, a descendant of disco. Ladies' Night is on Wednesday. Thursday features shag music. And weekends mean various bands, mostly classic rock.
"There's no hip-hop or rap here; it's in my lease," said Owen Thomas, who owns Uncle Sam's and co-owns Kilroy's in Woodbridge and Springfield and eCity Cafe at Tysons Corner. The previous tenant, the Shark Club, played hip-hop and rap, and there were fights, he said. He didn't get rid of the clear plastic wall that stretches to the ceiling from the second-floor railing that overlooks the dance floor -- "to keep people from throwing chairs down," he said.
One key to understanding the area's nightlife, Thomas said, is understanding that this is commuter-land. "At 4 a.m. here, people are jumping on the highway."
As a result, happy hours at Thomas's businesses are staggered: the Springfield club's is at 7 p.m., Woodbridge's is at 8 p.m. and Fredericksburg's at 9 p.m.
During daylight saving time, Uncle Sam's doesn't book comedy acts as much, Thomas said, because "people don't like to see comedy while it's light out. Standard time here is a very big deal."
At Wild Wings -- which patrons have nicknamed "Club Wild Wings" because managers take tables out of the way so patrons can dance -- manager Dan Veltre said the Fredericksburg Wild Wings typically ranks in the top five or 10 among the chain's 275-plus restaurants.
"I thought I'd seen malls before, being from a bigger place," said Veltre, who is from Cleveland, "but I couldn't believe this place."
Thomas said he wishes the mall's owners would keep the neon, "because it's a distinctive look," but he is resigned to a possibly very different future.
"Someday Uncle Sam's will be more like a walk-in bistro," he said of his 30,000-square-foot club, which now covers its walls with political jokes and posters of regular customers. "I just hope we can still draw the same crowd."