A multibillion-dollar company brimming with energy moves to the city’s core. The company employs a workforce steeped in high-tech, and its leaders prove willing to spend millions more experimenting with ways to improve urban life, build on their tech backgrounds and draw new, non-gaming businesses Downtown.
Meanwhile, four miles down the road a 28,000-student campus with graduate and undergraduate programs founded 56 years ago is still largely known for a towel-chewing basketball coach who brought home a national title more than 20 years ago. But lately, UNLV’s leadership has publicly professed a desire to strengthen the school’s academic reputation.
So why aren’t there stronger ties between UNLV and the new kids on the block, online retailer Zappos and Downtown Project, the $350 million redevelopment agency founded by the Zappos CEO and others?
The answer? It’s coming—in large part by way of Iowa City, Iowa.
Last spring, University of Iowa professor David Gould taught a course called “Reimagining Downtown,” an entire semester devoted to Downtown Las Vegas. Over spring break, students flew here for a week, and came up with the idea to vend vegan, organic desserts. Gould says people should start seeing the “pop-up food kit” soon.
Now Gould works for Downtown Project, which isn’t keen on titles. His work can be described as revolving around learning and education. That amorphous mission is being honed, however, and a big part of the plan is working with UNLV.
“I care about young adults, whether they are at Iowa or UNLV,” Gould says. He has documents spread over a table at the Gold Spike, the unofficial Downtown Project clubhouse and office, and he stands as he types on his laptop.
“I came here because what I think is going on is the most interesting social experiment taking place,” he says, referring to DTP’s investment in real estate, entertainment, education, technology and small business. “It cuts across so many disciplines that [it] enables young adults to see and participate in something actually happening.”
Gould still holds a University of Iowa faculty appointment as the first Obermann Center for Advanced Studies Public Scholar, so he remains connected to the school, allowing him to have “one foot in academia and one foot in the public sector.” The dual role also gives him a unique opportunity to see how the two can work together. It’s just natural, he says, “to have the UNLV campus a few miles away and make that initiative, bring those young adults here.”
Name the course of study—urban planning, business, community arts, writing, sociology, social work, computer science, engineering—and Gould can find a way it could benefit by working with Downtown Project. “We currently have a system where our 20-somethings are sitting in classrooms and memorizing and regurgitating, and we need to create meaningful experiences to test-drive ideas and take education into the real world,” he says. “We can make learning come alive for them to not only feed their lives, but see if there’s a way for them to feed the community.”
Gould recently met with the UNLV Graduate College’s interim dean, Kate Hausbeck Korgan, to discuss strengthening ties between Downtown and the Graduate College, and earlier this week 21 UNLV professors gave talks about their research and interests in Downtown Project’s Learning Village.
Gould’s excitement for the possibilities is contagious. “We have this window with these students, and if we miss this, it becomes so much more difficult later in their lives to course-correct for the things they didn’t do now,” he says, citing college debt as a big issue that forces some students into areas they aren’t passionate about or that don’t require a college degree.
Gould envisions courses taught on-site Downtown, and motivated students who believe they have the power to change things. If that happens, the only question 20 years from now might be: Do they name the new UNLV Downtown campus building after David Gould or Tony Hsieh?