The Billionaire Who Wants to Remake Downtown Las Vegas

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ethan Miller / Getty Images CEO Tony Hsieh

(2 of 2)

Those connections play out along East Fremont, but they play out in an even richer way one block to the north. A few years ago the Ogden, Hsieh's high-rise, was called the Streamline. It was a garish, unloved pink condo tower that symbolized the city's boom years overreach, when condos and condo hotels were rising up like some version of South Beach in the desert. New owners and a white paint job have transformed the tower into the Ogden, but it really doubles as, well, Zappos' social HQ.

To wander the floors of the Ogden is like seeing what Facebook, with its relentless, buzzing sense of perpetual connection and community, might look like if it existed in three-dimensional real-world space. The top two floors of the tower are occupied by Zappos employees or friends of the company; other Zappos employees and affiliates are sprinkled through the building's 275 units. Hsieh has set up 20 units as, essentially, free hotel rooms to recruit new employees to the exciting possibilities of downtown Las Vegas.

One unit is decked out with horizontal wood panels on the wall and thick, cushy carpeting — and pizza boxes. In another large unit, Hsieh plans a sort of hangout in the sky, replete with hookah lounge (the gold Buddha statues are already on the wall), bar and a separate space for the kids of Zappos employees. The kids' room will eventually be guarded by a fish tank, equipped with games and watched over by webcams so mom and dad can enjoy a drink next door while keeping an eye on the little ones. Down on the 17th floor he's even managed to create a little piece of Silicon Valley — the employees of a tiny start-up called Romotive have taken over a large apartment suite, and they are busy building, testing and packaging small roving robots that are powered by smart phones.

Romotive began in Seattle with a start-up incubator TechStars. The typical path for a young tech firm, of course, is to move to San Francisco. Hsieh found them on Kickstarter and invited them for a stay at the Ogden in mid-November. They never left. Hsieh was instrumental in leading a round of fundraising for the young company, which ultimately raised $1.5 million, including investments from Stanford, TechStars, execs from Nokia and Microsoft. "Tony was definitely instrumental," says Romotive CEO Keller Rinaudo.

And Vegas? Vegas was not on their radar screen. Until they got there. "We basically decided in San Francisco, we would just be one of a hundred thousand start-ups, and we wouldn't be able to have much influence on our community," says founder Peter Seid. "We just think it's really exciting to be able to create a community."

And that was what Hsieh says he was looking for in helping companies — that they be willing to relocate to downtown Las Vegas and want to help build community. Community is the big word. There are community meetings for tech start-ups, there are community dinners. Those Post-it notes on Hsieh's wall contain dozens of suggestions from the community about the kind of businesses and services they'd like to see downtown: a basketball center, or boxing, a doughnut shop.

Wherever Hsieh is, others seem to follow. Around downtown everyone with a remote connection to the arts or to urban planning seems to have a Tony Hsieh story or have run into him or have hopes that Zappos might support this endeavor or that. But there's no doubt that Zappos, more and more, is becoming a concrete part of the life of the city. It now sponsors the Las Vegas Marathon. Hsieh took over the stale First Friday monthly arts walk and has already begun to achieve one of its goals, breathing life into the city's arts-and-culture scene. Last month the event, taking a cue from Nevada's Burning Man festival, staged a Burning Woman event, setting a 20-ft.-tall wood statue ablaze. Hsieh's goal is simple and bracing: to remake downtown Las Vegas into "the most community-focused large city in the world, in the place you probably least expect it."

He is eminently accessible — just hang out on East Fremont — and yet a vague sense of mystery pervades. The cult of personality that surrounds Hsieh makes him appear like a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and Howard Hughes. Over the course of a single evening with Hsieh, more and more people enter his orbit. This, you gather, is the norm. A local restaurateur stops by hoping to host a dinner event in a giant unused space in Hsieh's apartment. His friends from East Fremont show up. A photographer and writer are near at hand. Hsieh and company are soon piling into a black Mercedes stretch van with flat screens set to the Google search page for a quick ride over to the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts. One imagines that half of downtown will be hanging out with him before the night is over.

"I'm doing it for a few different reasons," he had said earlier, at the outset. Selfishly, he's trying to create the sort of environment he wants to live in. Also, he figures a live-work-play downtown will help attract and retain Zappos employees. But it seems like his heart is more in the first reason, to shape a real community he'd be proud to call home. "It's kind of like an adult version of college, I guess," says Hsieh, "where it's just normal to run into people you know. Versus if you live in the suburbs, maybe once in a week you run into somebody at the grocery store."

Michael Cornthwaite, owns the Downtown Cocktail Room and runs Emergency Arts, including the Beat, with his wife, Jennifer Cornthwaite. As the van approaches the Smith Center, he explains the coming moment this way. "There will be a difference between going to the Strip — the amenity, the Disneyland, if you will — and going to the city of Las Vegas, which will be a proper, international world-class city, where there's business, industry and community. So you're either visiting Las Vegas or you're visiting the Strip. The two will cease to exist as the same. People will take Las Vegas seriously on other levels."

Hsieh's van pulls up to the Smith Center — traffic is packed around the showpiece arts complex that is just opening to the public. Before he goes, Hsieh says that he believes downtown Las Vegas will become a bigger version of the creative mix of tech pioneers and artists he cherishes at the Beat and the Ogden. Then, Hsieh, the Cornthwaites and the rest pile out and head in for the show.

Watching the crowds buzzing around the new arts complex on this stormy evening, anything seems possible. Still, Hsieh's venture will only be successful if he is able to lure to downtown other players who don't necessarily hang out with him, who are passionate about creating their own vision of downtown. Otherwise downtown Las Vegas will become only a company town by another name, and Hsieh will manage only to duplicate the very insularity he is working so hard to overcome. "Downtown needs the likes of Tony Hsieh," says architect Eric Strain, whose firm assemblageSTUDIO, is located a few blocks from the Smith Center, "but we need to move carefully and not expect him to be all the answers. We need to provide access to smaller developers who need to create alongside Tony Hsieh. We cannot expect every project to be a home run but encourage several singles along the way."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next