Joe Downtown

[Joe Downtown]

Blood trails, cyber babes and Tech Cocktails in Downtown Vegas

Illustration: Evan Hughes

One especially hot day in the summer of 1997, I was walking the baking streets of Downtown Las Vegas because it was a place I’d never really ventured. There hadn’t been a murder in a few days, and the paper typically shunned stories about garden-variety burglaries, robberies and muggings. But something happened at a motel nearby; a man had his neck slashed. He would live, but my editor was interested.

“Some gay love-triangle thing, I guess,” she told me. “Check it out.”

By the time I arrived, everything was gone but the blood trail, which ended in a pool at the foot of a two-step concrete stairway leading into a nondescript cinder-block building.

A man came outside and asked, in an Indian accent, what I was doing. “Come in, come in!” he said quickly after learning I was a reporter. I was about to be introduced to one of Las Vegas’ first forays into the world of Internet business.

The man led me into a dark hallway. There were doors to four rooms and windows looking into each room, where a woman sat on silky pillows in front of a computer and keyboard. The women wore almost nothing and were surrounded by rubbery devices of various lengths, widths and colors.

“We’re the first in the world!” the man boasted. It was a fee-based, person-to-person Internet porn site where the user paid to type messages to these women and then watch them do things via video on the computer screen back home.

Back at the office, my editor pulled off her sunglasses then burst into laughter. “No way. We’re a family paper, not Playboy.”

Years later the motel was demolished, but that cinder-block building remains. The world around it, however, is changing. A second wave of Web-based businesses is flourishing in a way it didn’t during the Internet explosion of the late ’90s, and much of that movement is happening Downtown.

One of the biggest signs of change took place last week with the first-ever Tech Cocktail Week in Downtown Las Vegas. Over two days, 34 speakers were scheduled to make 10-minute presentations about their “passion” through technology. Not just technology, though. Some were inspired by the Downtown Project, a company whose aim is to create a community that hasn’t existed Downtown for decades.

Cathy Brooks came to talk about her considerable background in marketing but decided to speak about her move to Las Vegas to start a dog park/boarding service on East Fremont. Liberty Huang of the online company WebJuice turned her talk to volunteerism in San Francisco.

Of course, there was still plenty of technical talk to go around, the point of which was to create “collisions” of ideas and excitement.

Evan Burfield, chairman and founder of Synteractive and chairman of Startup DC, spoke of efforts to create bridges between tech startups in Baltimore and the federal government. Brittany Laughlin founded Incline, which aims to hook up tech-savvy military veterans with careers in technology and engineering. She said it was difficult getting companies to bite at first because they only wanted people with certain degrees from certain universities.

Lots of the talk centered around the need for creating incubators to allow startups to experiment and prove themselves over a few months. Spaces aimed at that goal are now being built Downtown.

Offstage, when the tech people got together, the rapid-fire discussion sometimes became as indecipherable as ancient Sumerian.

Take, for instance, Greg Cangialosi, managing member of both Baltimore Angels and Nucleus Ventures, as well as co-founder of Betamore, talking to Tech Cocktail co-founder and CEO Frank Gruber: “So they went through one of the first accelerator classes at the ERA accelerator; went through the three-month program really focused on the QR code startup, and one week before demo day decided to pivot and came up with a subscription box service.”

Gruber, who moved the Tech Cocktail headquarters to Vegas a few months ago, nodded knowingly. He also affirmed that despite the buzzwords, the tech movement happening here and throughout the country isn’t exclusionary. “It’s more about ideas than about knowing [programming] code,” he said. “You can always find people to code.”

In other words, everyone’s invited. Not just those seeking an answer at the end of a trail of blood.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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