When I tell people that I am moving to Las Vegas for the next two years, reactions are entertaining to say the least. They range from attempts to be funny (“Oh, so you are going to re-live ‘The Hangover’?” and “Does that mean you won’t be able to talk about it since what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?”) to blank stares (“Wait, people actually live in Las Vegas?”) to, my personal favorite, the sage doubt (“Bless your heart”). Reactions tend to be pessimistic and condescending.
In all fairness, there is some justification for being skeptical about my move to Sin City. Las Vegas was one of the regions hardest hit by the recession. Gambling revenues have decreased for only the second time since 1970, the first being after 9/11. Home values have plunged by an average of 37 percent. Las Vegas had the dubious distinction of having the five most foreclosed ZIP codes in the country for 2011, and unemployment remains stubbornly high at 12.2 percent.
Even in good times, many visitors cringe at the thought of enduring the bright lights of The Strip for more than a few nights. So all other things being equal, why would someone straight out of college want to move to an economically depressed town that is (in)famous for its touristy feel?
The long and short of it is opportunity. Despite the dismal statistics cited above, there is potential in Vegas. It’s got history: Skip past the monolithic casinos on The Strip to the old Downtown, and you can imagine what it would have looked like in the 1930s, during the Golden Age of gambling. It’s got world-class entertainment and cuisine, fed by the billions of tourist dollars every year. It’s got community: Fremont East is home to a hidden wealth of local shops and cafes, where residents quite different from nightcrawlers of The Strip come out to play. The trick is to make the wealth of Vegas accessible to locals as well as tourists and to build up the existing community into a vibrant urban life that is not centered around the Strip.
Enter the Downtown Project, the newest venture of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. In 2011, Zappos was looking to move out of its current location in three sprawling office buildings in a Las Vegas suburb. When touring other corporate campuses, such as those of Nike, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, Hsieh was struck by how each campus was in some ways its own mini-city.
Instead of creating a separate mini-city, Hsieh decided to try to build community within an already existing city—“playing SimCity in real life.” Las Vegas’s old city hall will become Zappos’s new corporate headquarters in October 2013. Hsieh will invest $350 million to revitalize the surrounding area, including $200 million for land acquisition and real estate development, $50 million in arts, education and culture, and, perhaps most importantly, $50 million to support small businesses and tech start-ups.
Funding is not always the best indicator of success, but buy-in from the government certainly is another good sign. The project has been enthusiastically endorsed by the city and former mayor Oscar Goodman. In a little over a year, the Downtown Project has helped bolster Las Vegas’s First Friday series, was a part of the inaugural Color Run, and encouraged the organic growth of local tech, sustainability, and healthy living communities. The Downtown Project also plans to use refurbished shipping containers to cheaply house budding entrepreneurs until they move into newly built permanent structures, clearing way for the next iteration of entrepreneurs.
With six other 2012 Venture for America fellows, I moved to Las Vegas to join the Downtown Project in August. There have been some bumps along the way and there will continue to be more. Urban revitalization is not a formula that can always be solved with money, endorsement, and enthusiasm. Cities are complex, but Downtown Project is an incredible experiment in urbanism, and I for one am excited to be a part of it. Even in the brief time I have been here, it has been amazing to see the changes that have already come about.
Why would anyone move to Downtown Las Vegas? What there is lacking in amenities can be more than made up for with the community that is emerging here. I went to eat lunch at Eat, Downtown Vegas’s newest restaurant that has been open for a little over a month, with a friend on Monday (it was her first time there). At this point, I am pretty sure I have eaten every single item on the menu at least once, (breakfast, lunch, and brunch) and have gotten to know half the staff by name. I can walk in and greet Natalie with a smile and a hug, be given my drink of choice without being asked, and meet someone new if/when I am by myself. As my friend and I were wrapping up our meal, she asked how Eat came about. Instead of trying to explain that epic story, I flagged Natalie down. She made herself comfortable by not-so-gently pushing me further down the booth, talking about the different acts of kindness of the community to bring everything together, and then proceeded to give us both dating advice (thanks Natalie!). How many people can say they have that kind of relationship with a truly local restaurant in Vegas (or anywhere for that matter)?
Friday night I was meeting another friend at Le Thai for dinner. She was running a little late (typical) and I was a little early (also typical), so to kill some time I went to hang out with Hannibal in Coterie, a fashion boutique that opened on Fremont Street. Who was there by Danny, the chef and owner of Le Thai, who had recently been named the Best Chef (Off-Strip) by Vegas 7 magazine. Before Eat opened, Le Thai was my most frequent haunt downtown. There have definitely been weeks where I have eaten Le Thai every day of the week. It is one of the cornerstones of Downtown, one of Vegas’s best kept secrets (although Vegas 7 magazine might have let the cat out of the bag), and also less than a year old. That last tidbit was news to me. I got to hear Danny’s story about how he came to open Le Thai, and it was another one where there was a progression with community coming together.
Seeing how integral Le Thai has become a part of the community after less than a year and how popular Eat has become in a little over a month in being open, I can only imagine how much more the community will benefit from having more restaurants and businesses open. It is going to be quite an adventure being a part of this community and creating it too.
Image credit: Moyan_Brenn_BE_BACK_on_10th_OCT/Flickr