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Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project: A Utopia For Some?

Tony Hsieh’s downtown project took Las Vegas by storm five years ago.

Dipping into his personal fortune, he poured $350 million into what remains a novel idea: redeveloping Las Vegas’ downtown’s urban core.  

But not simply by creating new business. 

What inspired the city and became a public relations tsunami was Hsieh’s plan to foster “community” — that rarest of commodities in Las Vegas — even at the expensive of profit.

He called it the Downtown Project.

Almost from the beginning, Aimee Groth was there. She’s a tech business writer and has a new book out called “The Kingdom Of Happiness: Inside Tony Hsieh’s Zapponian Utopia.”

Groth's book provides insight into a whirlwind attempt to build business and community in a section of Las Vegas that had long been written off as a place for petty crime and the homeless.

In respone to the book, Zappos issued a statement to KNPR's State of Nevada:

"Several Zappos employees, including Tony, have reviewed the book and have collectively noted well over 100 pages that we believe contain inaccuracies, misrepresentations, or flat out false statements throughout the final version. As a result, the book is not a representation of Zappos or Tony or many others mentioned in the book, and is not officially endorsed by the company."

Groth, though, said she came to Hsieh's Downtown Project as an admirer, sold on his community vision.

And she got access to the Project's inner workings. She traveled with Hsieh, stayed in one of his condos in The Ogden high-rise. She went to their parties.

In fact, the first version of her book, she admitted, was fluff. Book publishers rejected it.

"I really believed in Tony's vision and I wanted it to come to fruition," Groth said in an interview on KNPR's State of Nevada.

She rewrote the book, giving it what she said is a more "realistic" twist. But Groth insisted this was not to get the approval of a publisher. Instead, by the time she started the rewrite, she added, Hsieh's Downtown Project was experiencing some failures.

Businesses started, then disappeared. When that happened, Downtown Project said it was in part expected -- especially in the Container Park at Fremont and 7th streets.

But there were also three suicides with people associated with Downtown Project. Groth said instead of strongly addressing those deaths, Downtown Project worried more about how the deaths would affect its image.

After a few years, the tenet "return on community," was dropped also from Downtown Project's mission statement.

"So many people (inside DTP) were highly disappointed and sad" when that happened, Groth said.

Downtown Project hasn't disappeared, however. It owns some 60 acres of property downtown and is actively working on developing that acreage. One of its biggest projects is a multi-story apartment building near 9th and Fremont streets. Hsieh had told journalists in 2016 that in hindsight, DTP might have been better off building housing earlier. Many former business operators have cited the lack of foot traffic and population density as factors that contributed to the closure of their businesses.

Some of that is still happening.

Announced earlier this year, the DTP-funded health care provider, Turntable Health, closed its doors. And roughly an hour after Groth talked to "KNPR's State of Nevada," Zydeco Po-Boys, a restaurant in DTP's building at 6th and Carson, announced it would be closing.

Aimee Groth, author, "The Kingdom of Happiness: Inside Tony Hsieh's Zapponian Utopia"

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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.