Joe Downtown: Las Vegas and the Harvard MBAs: More help from beyond state lines?

Meeting of minds: David Gould, left, Lindsay Hyde and Amy An, right, meet with Lt. Harry Fagel at the Beat.

Harvard MBA students—accomplished in business, community outreach, nonprofits and more—are coming to Las Vegas this spring. A couple of them visited town last week, meeting with people from small and large businesses, UNLV, government, neighborhood associations, law enforcement and, well, me.

Lindsay Hyde and Amy An met with 45 people in seeking to answer a basic question: What can they do to enhance community in Las Vegas? Their visit was inspired by David Gould, the University of Iowa Obermann Center Public Scholar and Director of Imagination for Downtown Project. That latter title sounds fun, but the job is tougher than you think: creating bridges between academia and Downtown Las Vegas.

Some people find the idea of Harvard MBAs parachuting into Las Vegas to solve a problem or address community misguided. “Sin City will never, ever be Cambridge [Massachusetts],” said one Downtown resident, taking issue with the idea that outsiders are the ones doing this, trying to get the lay of the land without ever living here.

But this isn’t quite a parachute mission. After Hyde and An visited this week, they will return with a handful of fellow students over spring break—all at their own expense and not for class credit. They’re doing this to integrate what they’ve learned with an energetic and unique redeveloping area such as Downtown Las Vegas. After their week, Hyde and An came away with a general sense that art, in many forms, would be integral to whatever they come up with.

But can these bright Harvard MBAs understand historic Las Vegas elements, such as the disconnect between Downtown and the rest of the Valley, especially the Strip? Are they getting just happy talk from those they meet, or do they know about the cauldron of intense emotions, paranoias and suspicions in Las Vegas’ “very large high school,” also known as the Downtown bubble?

I bounced that thought off a Ph.D. at Starbucks on Maryland Parkway over the weekend. Her educated take: “Is any city like any other city? New York isn’t LA or Chicago or Miami. Don’t we want people to come here with different visions? Maybe they see some things we don’t.”

Too close to the trees to see the forest, perhaps? “Exactly,” she said. “And if [the students] are like a good editor, they won’t rewrite the entire story but find the good nuggets and refine it.”

Talking to Gould and Hyde on Friday, I got the sense that a rewriting of Las Vegas is not what they have in mind. They are thinking about “art” and “community,” with many weeks of work, conceptualizing and testing ahead.

They also have a good grasp on the idea that whatever they come up with could fail—even Downtown, where the admission of failure feels strictly verboten. But Gould says failure isn’t a bad thing. For the Harvard students, their successes or failures will become lessons for others.

And don’t expect this to be a flash-in-the-pan experiment. Indeed, this is the second time Gould has brought out-of-state students to town. A year ago, while at the University of Iowa, he created a class and brought his students here to focus exclusively on Downtown. One of those students has since moved here and is part of a Downtown Project-funded tech business.

For many, DTP’s main focus has been to create bars, restaurants and malls, transportation systems and smartphone apps—things that benefit the bottom line and may foster community. Gould is given the leeway needed to consider a more theoretical path toward fostering “community.” With decades of experience in academia, and having spent a good year on the ground Downtown, he is piecing together numerous plans—not yet ready for release—to integrate the neighborhood with Ivy League schools like Harvard, as well as UNLV.

He’s taking a side road that doesn’t lead directly to a fire-shooting praying mantis, mega-festivals or myriad taverns. But having struggled through five years of recession, coupled with the realization that education is important in a job market that prizes thinking over the ability to run fast to retrieve a valeted car, Gould’s route might be the one Las Vegas really needs.

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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