Mark Rowland compares Fremont Street’s growth to that of children: When you see them every day you don’t notice the changes; it’s only when you’ve been away for a while that you do, the 45-year-old CEO of Downtown Project Ventures says from Australia, his former home, during a holiday visit.
Downtown today — almost a year since he took over DTP’s business operations — is worlds apart from what it was in 2012 when he first visited. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, there’s restaurants, there are cafés. Wow, there’s Container Park. Gold Spike’s changed; you can’t smoke inside anymore.’ ... There’s a lot of things a lot of people should be really proud of. A lot of players have put a lot of effort ... into turning Fremont Street into something radically different than what it was before.”
The Downtown Project, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s effort to revitalize the city’s center with $350 million of investment into real estate, technology startups and small businesses, is entering year five of its five-year plan. But Rowland says DTP isn’t going anywhere and never planned to; the hope was that in time it could scale back and let things unfold.
“Overall it’s worked,” Rowland says of the Downtown Project’s mission, despite layoffs and business closures along the way. “When you start a community with entrepreneurial energy, you’re going to be taking risks. Some of those things you think will work, but you know by the law of averages that not everything will.”
When asked what he’d still like to see Downtown, Rowland doesn’t hesitate: “more humans.” He says that’s DTP’s main focus for 2016, when the company will try to attract “four buckets,” or four key demographics to Fremont Street—locals who don’t live Downtown, tourists, new businesses and new residents. To address the latter, DTP will begin its residential-building phase in the new year, breaking ground in January on 250 studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments next to Atomic Liquors, bringing hundreds more residents to Fremont Street, with the ultimate goal of attracting 1,000. When it comes to new business, Rowland says professionals like Downtown’s accessibility but complain there aren’t enough places to eat, forcing them to drive elsewhere.
Whenever Rowland has a chance to personally show someone Fremont Street, they get it, he says, but that method isn’t scalable.
“How do you explain the message of what Downtown Vegas is, without being able to grab their hand and show them?” he asks. For one, he plans to make sure neighboring markets are aware, capturing some of Las Vegas’ 41 million annual visitors. DTP will also spread the word through 60-second commercials about Downtown Las Vegas, which will play in taxis and on TV.
Another tactic is to improve the information being shared on bus tours. He’s taken rides and listened to what tour guides had to say, and “it wasn’t the best,” he says. “It focused on the past.” Tours give information about where Fremont Street started and note that it took a turn for the worse, sometimes leaving it at that. “It became a high-crime area,” Rowland says, impersonating a tour guide. “If you’d like to get off now, please do.”
Rowland points to positive additions, from a record store and bookstore to a juice bar and market. “There could always be more—more bars, more restaurants, more choice ... but we have enough now,” he says of the residential building blocks. And by the way, an Indian restaurant is in the works on the ground floor of City Center Apartments, which England-born Rowland can’t wait for. (It’s not affiliated with DTP.)
If Downtown Project had a New Year’s Resolution, from Rowland’s perspective, it would be to tout Downtown’s overall growth. “For me, it’s being more vocal and letting the world know that this is here,” he says. “It’s very good to be humble, but sometimes you can go too far with that and not celebrate the successes you’ve had ... I’ve realized what we need to do is get out there and say [it]. It’s not just us, but Downtown Project has played a big part, and we’re really excited to show the world, this is what we are now, and we’re not what we used to be. ... My catch phrase has been, ‘You haven’t seen Las Vegas unless you’ve been Downtown.’”