Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: The call of Downtown persuades successful professionals to uproot their careers

Making the leap: Michael Downs left a job at Bellagio to be part of Downtown Project.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

With a wife and kids living in the heart of one of the most desirable cities in the country, Zubin Damania was about as settled as anyone might expect to be at 38 years old. So why would he give up a successful medical practice — which in turn, meant his wife giving up her successful radiology practice — to uproot and move to downtown Las Vegas?

“I remember about four months after getting here, the condo was in disarray, I was trying to figure out how to get this clinic going and looking at my wife and saying, “What in the (heck) have we done?”

Michael Downs didn’t move from a different city, but from the Bellagio, where he was vice president of operations, a top job at a top-notch resort. Downtown Las Vegas barely registered on Downs’ day-to-day radar. To Strip casinos, downtown “is not part of what we were, not a competitor.”

Yet downtown is his new work home. He’s shed the suit and tie for, on most days, jeans and a hoodie as the new executive vice president of operations for Downtown Project.

Then there’s Cathy Brooks. She moved here this month from Northern California, where she lived comfortably as a consultant to startups. In a few short months, she will be in charge of a Downtown Project-supported dog park on Fremont Street. Over time, plans include putting the park indoors to deal with Vegas’ broiling summer heat.

“When you’re leaping out of something comfortable that you’ve done your whole career and into the unknown, no matter how soft the landing or how great the people, of course there is trepidation,” she says. “If I didn’t have it, I’d be delusional.”

For each of these three, the metamorphosis isn’t yet complete. Damania has been living here for about a year, but his downtown medical clinic is months from completion. The site for Brooks’ dog park is likewise months from being ready. Downs is only about a month into his job, spending most days at the Beat meeting with others who also used to wear a suit and tie to work.

Downs met Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh about five years ago. Later, Hsieh asked him to work with the Downtown Project.

“I said, ‘Nah, I’m really happy,’” Downs recalls. “I didn’t see the vision initially. The City Hall deal made me a little nervous.”

Time passed, and as he spent more time “and watched as he created this community. I started to see it. And I came over.”

While Downs, Damania and Brooks are working on different projects, they have a lot in common. All three are near or in their 40s, and all three took a leap into the unknown that, it’s safe to say, wouldn’t be easy for anyone who has reached middle age and attained success or established roots in another city or business. Their moves are a testament, perhaps, to the “community” downtown: You can’t swing a dead laptop without hitting someone saying that word these days.

Even the venture capital fund Hsieh and others founded as a way to invest in tech projects bases decisions in part on how well a company adds to the downtown community. And, at least in these early days of what might become a downtown transformation, it’s working. A community is springing up, albeit in a few square miles.

Will it continue?

Judging by these three, perhaps. They’re driven. After making such a huge move, each of them wants this to work. At the same time, they’ve each found the transition — not seamless nor without bumps — energizing.

Damania had to leave downtown and move to the northwest suburbs because it’s closer to his daughter’s school. His wife, also a doctor, now analyzes radiological images via the Internet. But he hopes to move back downtown. “I really miss it.” Las Vegas, he says, “is home.”

Asked if he’s glad he made the change, Downs is emphatic: “Absolutely. “Just being down here, being part of the evolution of downtown, the entrepreneurial spirit and the community — it’s fun.”

Brooks breezes through the Beat with her Labradoodle, Truman, hugging as she goes. The smile never leaves her face. She looks like she belongs and says as much. “I just love it here. This is where I want to be.”

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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