It has been nearly five years since Zappos boss Tony Hsieh unveiled ambitious plans for a private urban renewal effort designed to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.
The Downtown Project invested $350 million in technology startups, small businesses and housing to jumpstart the economy and make the area near Zappos’ headquarters safer and more livable.
Today, what has been dubbed Fremont East boasts bustling sidewalks and trendy restaurants and taverns. Families, once a rare sight in the area, shop at the Container Park.
Downtown Project says it has helped create 1,000 jobs and has nearly that many residential units under management.
Still, the idea of turning the urban core into a technology incubator has been a dream unrealized, with several startups meeting demise and seed money drying up. The mission of the Vegas Tech Fund, rebranded as VTF Capital, has narrowed along with its name.
Writer Aimee Groth, whose recent article on the Downtown Project was headlined “How Tony Hsieh’s vision to create the ideal startup city faltered,” said the verdict is mixed.
“He wanted to create the most community oriented city in the world and that just hasn’t happened yet,” she told KNPR's State of Nevada.
Groth said one of the reasons the idea has not come to fruition is people, and Hsieh in particular, lost interest.
“There was a lot of excitement in the beginning but that excitement has died down over the years,” she said, “Tony has lost interest in the project”
Groth said when the project was first announced a lot of people flocked to to it, and a lot of money was handed out but, “there was not a lot of due diligence in evaluating entrepreneurs.”
She said in the early days if someone came to Downtown Project with a good idea they would likely get funded. However, having a good idea and running a business are two different things.
“A lot of people just took the money without thinking through really what does it take to create a business that will last,” she said.
Groth believes much of that initial excitement and belief that the project was going to take off and change downtown for good was fueled by Hsieh himself.
“Tony brought Silicon Valley to downtown Las Vegas,” she said, “I think there is a danger when so much rests on one person and one person’s personality and whims.”
One of those whims grew out of the Burning Man festival in Northern Nevada.
Groth said Hsieh and many other tech-industry insiders go to the festival in the Black Rock desert every year for inspiration. Hsieh wanted to bring that same kind of free-thinking, anything-is-possible feeling to downtown Las Vegas, she said. “It’s really hard to create this atmosphere. This utopia that happens once a year for seven days. It’s hard to bring that into a city.”
Despite all the talk of revitalizing downtown, Groth believes the main reason for Downtown Project was to create a company town for Zappos employees to work, live and play. It has worked to some extent, but a lack of affordable housing has been a stumbling block.
“Downtown Vegas is a better place to live and play than it ever was,” she said but Downtown Project has been far from perfect. “It has faltered in that it hasn’t been this total upward trajectory. There’s been stalling. There’s been layoffs, but you could also argue that those things happen in the normal course of business”
As for the future of the Downtown Project, Groth believes it will focus more on sustainability rather than more investment in new projects. Groth said Downtown Project has no plans to name a new CEO and she expects it to not be as "cohesive as it once was."
Groth is finishing a book on Hsieh and his initiative that is due to be published in early 2017, coinciding with the Downtown Project’s five-year anniversary.
Aimee Groth, writing a book on the Downtown Project
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