Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: What if you build it and the suburbanites don’t come?

Buzzworthy? Downtown’s Container Park is meant to bring the curious—but will it work?
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

While I was off work recently, I stayed away from the usual Downtown hangouts and suspects. Instead, I wandered about the “suburbs” and talked to people who don’t live Downtown—got outside of the bubble, as it were.

In doing so, I came away with a couple of distinct thoughts.

One is that many people in the Las Vegas Valley have never been to the redeveloping Fremont Street Entertainment District. Fewer, it seems, even care about it. Or maybe it’s that they still can’t find a reason to go Downtown.

Let’s face it: While Downtown-ers might think the suburbs have all the aesthetic appeal of a sidewalk, all the community feel of a prison, they excel at convenience. Malls with coffee shops, bars, retail and restaurants serve large clusters of cookie-cutter homes. Sure, it’s Starbucks coffee for the most part, but independent coffee shops are also popping up.

Downtown’s redevelopment is happening in a way that appears to contradict traditional modes. Instead of business opening to meet the demands of a growing population, business is popping up before the people, and the perhaps the demand, are there. The hope is, if you build it, they will come—even from the suburbs or the neighborhoods just a few miles from the urban core.

For that to happen, though, you really have to offer something to see.

The Container Park—which is less containers and more pre-fabbed cubicles—is one development that people I talked to recognized by name and were curious about.

Is curiosity enough?

Not really. People have to be sold, and one thing Downtown Project doesn’t sell is its businesses. DTP owns the lion’s share of developable land Downtown and has opened the Container Park and numerous other businesses. It does a great job creating pamphlets that talk about the Container Park and its tenants, for instance, but that seems to be a sales job to keep its own spirits high. Again, few beyond the Downtown bubble know of such things. And the idea of marketing to the larger community seems foreign down here.

If homeowners within a few miles of Fremont Street aren’t getting fliers in their mailboxes or stuffed inside their doors offering coupons or deals at some of the newer businesses, will they even bother checking them out?

Case in point: One of the newer pizza places Downtown, Wild, on the first floor of the Ogden, is virtually unknown to anyone outside of the building. I drove by it First Friday night and saw one person inside around 8 p.m. First Friday, mind you, is one of the busiest nights of the month Downtown.

Wild serves gluten-free pizza with hormone- and antibiotic-free ingredients—immediate draws to our increasingly health-conscious society—and people tell me it’s very good. Yet, beyond the few people talking about it inside the bubble, not one person I spoke with in the ’burbs had heard of it.

At some point, the people opening businesses Downtown have to reach out to the rest of the Valley. Asked about its marketing strategy, DTP could not be reached by presstime.

Maybe DTP’s grand scheme is to throw as much out there as possible, know you’ll take losses and hope the businesses that survive earn enough money to hedge against the losses. Perhaps that explains why some retailers in the Container Park have just six-month leases.

So how many failures will Downtown Project endure to reach those nuggets of success? Another question, and this one from inside the bubble: Could this redevelopment fail?

Sure it could.

But one development could negate most of the worry: high-density apartments Downtown. I mean money and plans, not just talk, of which there has been plenty from would-be developers in the past few months. Put some shovels in the ground, then we’ll start believing.

Until that happens, Downtown’s going to have to do something to draw people.

Coupons, anyone?

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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