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The Ups And Downs Of Trying To Rebuild Downtown Las Vegas

Mayor Carolyn Goodman did her job a week ago, cheerleading for all things Las Vegas, and the rosy economic future ahead.

Ok, fine. But what’s the reality?

There’s perhaps no better place to gauge the health of Las Vegas than in one of its oldest sections, its urban core.

And not every downtown business survived 2015. Insert Coin(s) the barcade is gone. Gone is O-Face doughnuts. Bar+Bistro closed, but is now replaced with a Crown & Anchor British pub. Other new businesses are sprouting up. One is a retail-restaurant-movie theater in the Arts District.

Economic analyst Jeremy Aguero told KNPR’s State of Nevada that closures are common especially among small businesses. He said there is a variety of reasons for businesses to close up shop and location may not be one of them.

“We can absolutely expect increased and more failures in and around downtown, and frankly, throughout our community,” he said, “And the reason for that is because, we are actually seeing more small businesses start to sprout up.”

However, Aguero notes that the progress made downtown in just the past few years has been impressive.

“I don’t know how you look at the Downtown Project and the fact that $350 million has or continues to be invested in the area and aren’t amazed by the transformation,” Aguero said. He went on to say that perception of downtown is “substantially different that it was five or even 10 years ago.”

He said the only thing that might be criticized is expectations for the revitalization effort.

“If I’m going to be critical… I would have to point to the fact that the management of the expectations seems to have gotten away from it a bit,” Aguerro said.

Mark Rowland is the CEO for DTP Ventures, the arm of the Downtown Project charged with overseeing its owned and operated business.

He said there were a lot of successful launches in downtown during 2015, listing of everything from a new coffee shop at Fremont Street and Maryland Parkway to Smashed Pig pub on Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard.

“There are some really awesome things that I think have been successes in the last year,” Rowland said.

Despite the successes, Rowland admits density of people is one of the biggest problems downtown Las Vegas still struggles.

“Biggest challenge we have in downtown Las Vegas is the lack of humans, the lack of foot traffic,” he said.

He said there are four main goals of Downtown Project is;  to get people who live in Las Vegas to come downtown; to draw tourists downtown; to build population density downtown; and to launch new business ventures.

“Our approach has always been not to market too much, not to spend a lot of money telling people that they should come downtown but more just to create something that is worth their visit,” he said.

Rowland said Downtown Project Ventures is partners in a new apartment building that aims to hit one of those goals. The 250-unit complex will be next to Atomic Liquor at 9 th and Fremont streets. Rowland said it will offer mid-range housing, which Rowland said the area needs.

“So, there is this huge gap between the lower cost of living in a nice, clean place and some very expensive condominium living,” Rowland said, “So, we wanted to try to fill that spot right in the middle.”

Lauralie Lee Ezra chose downtown Las Vegas to set up her social media marketing company Crowd Siren six years ago. Ezra lives in Summerlin but does business out of the Emergency Arts building because it's less expensive and she likes downtown's energy.

“For me, it’s about the vibe. It’s about what I can offer to my team members," she said. "It’s about being creative and being around creative people.”

Ezra was one of the first to recognize downtown as a potential technology hub. She worked with other startup founders to create a community of tech companies and build off the energy that was there.

However, Ezra said that energy has disappeared. Many of those who were part of that scene just two years ago have fled, some moving to Switch's Innevation Center.

“It is hard to compete with suburbia,” Ezra said, “If you could go to your neighborhood park ... or you can be downtown and there is a little dog park there. There is not necessarily this community of people who want to be there all the time.”

She also said the Switch Innevation Center offers some better basics like more space and faster Internet service.

Ezra has also seen people leave Las Vegas entirely for better paying jobs in San Francisco and New York City. She said for many of those people, the reality of the situation just settled in.

“Not anyone can just start a business and have it be successful,” she said.

As for the future of the urban core and plans for 2016, Rowland believes mass transit, including a light rail line along Maryland Parkway, will help.

Aguero agreed. He believes whatever transportation plan the city and  Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada develoop will be a key piece of the downtown economic puzzle.

“To me, the one that wins three years from now, is all going to be dependent upon the city’s mobility master plan,” Aguero said.

Mark Rowland, CEO, Downtown Project Ventures; Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst, Applied Analysis, Lauralie Lee Ezra, founder, Crowd Siren

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.