Remaking Vegas In A Tech Billionaire's Image: Will It Last? : All Tech Considered CEO Tony Hsieh pumped $350 million into downtrodden downtown Las Vegas to make it a home for startups and a place young people want to live again. Three years in, is it working?

Remaking Vegas In A Tech Billionaire's Image: Will It Last?

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And today we begin a new round of stories from the NPR Cities Project. It's called "How We Live."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Develop it into a world-class city.

CATHY BROOKS: Community rising from the ashes.

TONY HSIEH: You had everything you need to live, work, play within walking distance.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Our lawns, our houses, our streets.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're more unified as people in these communities.

CORNISH: In the coming weeks, we'll explore how design of buildings - of whole neighborhoods affects and shapes our communities.


Today, we'll hear about the attempt to design a rebound in a derelict downtown. It's in Las Vegas.


MAYOR CAROLYN GOODMAN: If we don't create that bus downtown, we will remain at the status quo. And the status quo, in my opinion, is just not good enough.

BLOCK: In her State of the City Address this month, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman focused heavily on the need for a downtown revival. And she gave a shout out to a tech billionaire...


GOODMAN: Mastermind Tony Hsieh.

BLOCK: ...For playing a key role in a long list of new openings.


GOODMAN: The bunkhouse alone, Zappos made-to-order pop-up shop at the old Western Hotel.

BLOCK: The CEO of Zappos has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into property and startup businesses over the last three years in downtown Vegas. For Tony Hsieh, this is part revitalization project, part social experiment. He wants to create a lasting, livable community. But his efforts are not without bumps. NPR's Elise Hu takes us around.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In a lot that used to be a Motel 6, CEO Tony Hsieh has helped create a park.

HSIEH: Kids are having fun and adults are hanging out with each other. And what you're hearing in the background is live music from local bands.

HU: The park's perimeter is lined with shipping containers in bright shades of orange and blue and yellow. About 40 local restaurants, retail shops and tiny art galleries have opened up inside them. In the middle of the park is the music pavilion and lawn, and a 25-foot tall Swiss Family Robinson-style tree house playground.

HSIEH: Have you gone down the slide yet? You should. It's part of the experience of visiting the Downtown Container Park.

HU: The Container Park is part of a much grander vision called Downtown Project. We've been tracking this since we visited last April. The project's aim? To get more people living and working in this forgotten part of Vegas. Hsieh pledged to pour $350 million from his personal fortune to the area. Downtown Las Vegas is the blighted part of the city where rooms can rent for $29 a night and bottomless drinks are served in plastic footballs. The much better known Las Vegas Strip is miles away.

HSIEH: What you find on the Strip is really geared towards tourists. And what we're focusing on here is geared towards locals and this sense of community.

HU: He says just as culture is to a company, a community is to a city.

HSIEH: So Vegas traditionally isn't really known as a walking town or city. It's a very car-based culture and we wanted to help create a place where you had everything you need to live, work, play within walking distance. And so if you look one block that way, there's actually the world's largest functioning fire hydrant attached to the dog park and doggie day care.

HU: Hsieh's pointing a few blocks down Fremont Street at the dog-dominated small business started by Cathy Brooks.

BROOKS: (Calling to dog) Hey, Moxie.

HU: She moved here after closing her tech consulting practice in San Francisco.

BROOKS: If you had asked me a year and a half ago the top 100 places in this world, on this entire planet, where I might consider relocating my life, Las Vegas would not have even been on the list.

HU: But thanks to an investment from Downtown Project funds dedicated to incubating small businesses, Brooks opened up the Hydrant Club. It's a downtown dog park where dogs stay and play for the day while getting behavioral training, too.

BROOKS: Amidst this community rising from the ashes of downtown Las Vegas was a real need for a place for the dog community to be a community.

HU: The Hydrant Club is one of 60 start-ups and about 800 jobs funded by Hsieh's project. The investments are a mix of tech start-ups, traditional small businesses like restaurants, and education or health initiatives, all part of creating a community at hyper speed. The idea is that when people live, shop and work in the same neighborhood, it fuels chance encounters - collisions, as they call them here - that lead to innovation.

MATT HELLER: It's impressive. There's a lot of change happening, and it happens almost daily.

HU: That's Matt Heller, a downtown Las Vegas dweller I found at one of the new co-working spaces that's popped up downtown. He used to lead brand development at retailer Abercrombie and Fitch but now considers himself part of the downtown community. Three years since Hsieh started spending, Heller wonders what happens beyond this initial cash infusion.

HELLER: There is zero sustainability in downtown Las Vegas - zero. We have to keep it growing every day. So the question is at what cost? And I'm not sure when someone will say, you know what, we can't afford to water this grass anymore. There isn't any income.

HU: Hsieh's company of 1,600 is headquartered here, and there's no sign Zappos is short of income after a $1 billion purchase by Amazon. The Downtown Project started when Hsieh moved Zappos's permanent headquarters to the old downtown City Hall.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: All right, you guys. So welcome to our customer service department. This is our largest group here at our headquarters.

HU: I took a tour of Zappos, where guides emphasize its focus on customer service. Hsieh actually made his name on creating a company culture where people wanted to work. With Downtown Project, he's doing it at a city-sized scale, trying to create a place that people want to live.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: Well, we love to eat here so (unintelligible) ice cream.

HU: Hsieh's young staff also needed life outside work and there was nothing around but dilapidated motels. So the man who focused on company culture started thinking about what cities need in order to thrive. But there are questions now about how the vision's being managed. The project laid-off 30 main office staff in the fall. This week the project's chief spokesperson left her job. The company offered no explanation. And unsettling events have further rattled the community. Among them, two entrepreneurs involved with the project died by suicide.

Back at the Container Park with Hsieh, he says he's learning as he goes along.

HSIEH: I come from the tech world where you can kind of go from idea to launch in 24 hours. And so even though I knew obviously the physical world can move slower than the tech world, there are just some things that just take a lot of time and therefore a lot of patience.

HU: Hsieh told NPR this week the project is still on track, but he doesn't claim to have all the answers.

HSIEH: Sometimes there are things that you just might not have ever anticipated, just because I'm not from that world.

HU: The investor in Hsieh is giving this project another two years to break even. His Zappos business is based here, after all. But he says he wants to see a city revitalized for more than just a business reason.

HSIEH: I don't know if it needs to be framed as, oh, you're either in business to maximize profits, or you're this philanthropic, altruistic person. I think there can be an in-between where you try to do well by doing good and it's a win-win-win for everyone.

HU: Is it working so far?

HSIEH: I hope so. (Laughter).

HU: A revitalizing urban core, built on tens of millions of dollars and a lot of hope. In that way, the project is a lot like the restaurants retail inside shipping containers here. Is this temporary? Is it permanent? For now, it's a little bit of both in downtown Vegas.

All right, thanks Tony.

Elise Hu for the NPR Cities Project.

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