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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Have Zappos employees answered the neighborhood’s revitalization prayers?

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Building a renaissance? Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh brought 1,500 employees Downtown last year. Can they sustain all the area’s new businesses?
Photo: Steve Marcus

The great promise of Zappos Downtown came from the prayer-filled lips of the City Council, the mayor, Downtown residents and any business owner still operating in the “bad” part of Fremont Street circa 2010.

It went something like this: “Let Tony Hsieh’s 1,500 employees moving into the heart of Las Vegas foment a Downtown Renaissance. Amen.”

The move itself took place last September after Zappos spent tens of millions renovating old city hall on Stewart Avenue at Las Vegas Boulevard. Even before that move, Hsieh had established Downtown Project, a $350 million private redevelopment group with a modest goal: transform woebegotten Downtown into a place where even Hsieh’s employees would love to play and live.

Bars, restaurants, a school, bands. Hsieh promised that within a few years, he’d have invested in and helped create hundreds of new businesses Downtown. And the Zapponians would follow. Wouldn’t they?

The playground has gotten bigger. There’s the Container Park, Inspire Theater, Eat, O Face Doughnuts, La Comida, Coterie, the Gold Spike, the Downtown Rangers, bunches of new parking and, someday, that geodesic dome at Container Park is expected to do more than glow pretty colors at night (for more on that, turn to Page 17). A hot yoga place is coming. And a juice bar with a hand-scanning, nutrient-needs evaluator. And an innovative multimodal, for-fee transportation system.

And yeah, more bars (yawn).

Seems most people have grown used to the homeless.

There have been hiccups along the way, of course. That $350 million was a beacon to those eying their slice of the pie. And those gold-seekers who’ve tried to take shortcuts have, we’ve heard, caught the eye of law enforcement agencies. (More on that in a future column.)

Personal tragedies connected to Downtown’s fervent growth remind us of the pressure we all put on ourselves to succeed, realistic or not.

Then the machine chugs on.

And through it all, have the prayers been answered?

In different ways and to different degrees, they have. At least, that’s the word from a good number of business operators and Downtown residents I contacted last week.

“We keep getting more and more Zappos employees all the time,” said one bar owner.

“Our business model is the same whether they come or not,” said another.

Here’s a less generous view: “Now everyone is seeing how one company of less than 1,500 can’t sustain a 600 percent increase in new business ventures.”

And another: “Wait till SLS [the former Sahara hotel-casino] opens—think Downtown Las Vegas is a ghost town now?”

Someone in the non-food, non-drink industry said almost none of his customers are Zapponians or Downtown Project-ers.

This from a Zappos employee: “We go to lunch three days a week [Downtown], hardly ever to the Gold Spike, and from what I’ve seen, other [Zappos teams] do, too. We haven’t been told that we should go to DTP places, either.”

The prayer within a prayer is that Hsieh & Co. entice residential developers to create the population density needed to sustain Fremont East’s new businesses. Hsieh once said that was 100 people per square mile. He later altered the formula to include time spent here by visitors.

Hsieh’s a smart guy. Let’s hope he can decipher this one. That might work better than prayer.

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