Some two months after Tony Hsieh said that “return on community” is no longer part of his Downtown redevelopment strategy, it feels like some of the bloom has fallen from the rose.
There’s a noticeable lack of enthusiasm among those living and working Downtown. One of them put it this way: “Before, when I met someone from out of town, I’d encourage them to move Downtown, because it was so great. Now? I tell them to make up their own minds.”
Some were swept up in the initial excitement; some took a more cautious view from the start. Some wizened Las Vegas residents doubted all that “return on community” talk. They saw Downtown Project and its investments as a normal business endeavor—inspired to redevelop, sure, but more by the prospect of making a buck than bolstering a neighborhood. If DTP was so community-minded, I was often asked, would it create a private school that few people Downtown could afford?
Others saw it differently. In late 2012, Dylan Jorgensen, co-founder of Ticket Cake, which received DTP money, took return-on-investment to mean this: “It’s less about revenue,” he said. “I’ve never seen an investment philosophy like it.”
Jorgensen spoke from the heart. Like others, he was filled with the loftiness of “return on community,” a fitting corollary to sister-slogan “delivering happiness,” the title of Hsieh’s autobiography. But while last year Downtowners were abuzz with pride, today there’s a buzz of negativity. Or maybe it’s just me. It’s no secret reporters get jaded.
So I wanted a fresh impression from people who had never been here before. Who better to talk to than invitees of CatalystCreativ, the DTP-funded business that brings creative minds Downtown?
CatalystCreativ says it “builds community for cities, brands and movements through educational and inspirational events. Our mission is to create more active participants in making the world a better place.”
That sounded ideal to Joe and Virginia Murphy of Memphis. She’s the founder of Playback Memphis, which works to improve community connections using “theatre, storytelling and community dialogue.” Joe, a former actor, directs a children’s music program.
CatalystCreativ is also seen as a way to show off Downtown and entice others to live here. Maybe the Murphys would bring their community-minded ideas to Las Vegas?
The couple flew in last week expecting the best. They took the tour, watched the speeches, met the speakers and other attendees. A few days in, Joe said he was tiring of the happy talk. “I bet I heard ‘delivering happiness’ and ‘community’ a million times.”
Virginia had her own questions: Where and how is happiness being delivered? “There’s something in the idea that you can ‘deliver happiness’ that’s so over-simplified,” she said. “As if it’s something they control and drive.” Most of the attendees and speakers, Joe said, “just wanted to talk about themselves, about changing the world, about how amazing they are.”
Saturday, after talks in DTP’s Learning Village, the two stopped by a get-together at the Ogden, where attendees and speakers drank beer in the rooftop whirlpool. When they got up to leave, one attendee handed Virginia a towel, and in the process—to put it in adolescent terms—felt her up. When Joe found out, he confronted the man. The groper smiled and offered him a fist bump. “Aw, why don’t you grow up?” Joe spat.
Before leaving town, the couple gave their assessment: “It seems like they are masters at creating the illusion that they are doing inspiring, good work, while in reality, their lives exist in a bubble designed to feed two things: ego and pleasure,” Virginia wrote.
Both had a hard time taking the “happiness” and “community” talk seriously, “if you’re not able to have real conversations about the root causes of poverty,” Virginia said. “It was like a pleasure subsidy for globe-trotting elites. I don’t think I saw one ‘real’ person while there ...”
A few days later, Virginia softened. “There were some decent people there,” she said. Other Creativ guests saw things differently, she added, quoting an email that called it an “amazing experience.”
To some, DTP and its many tentacles have rescued the area. But for others, the Murphys’ story will affirm what they’ve long thought: Downtown Project is just a business—no different, no better than any other.