Downtown Vegas: Where Better To Build A Company Than In A Giant Start-Up?

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on September 24, 2011

From The News Desk

Today is my first full work day in my new downtown Vegas home. I've spent countless hours down here over the past few months, but there's a palpably different feeling now that this is where I actually live. It's very exciting.

As I wrote yesterday, my decision to base The New Thing in downtown Vegas is in large part due to Tony Hsieh's 'Downtown Project'. Having sold Zappos to Amazon, Tony has turned his attention to -- in his words -- "playing SimCity with a real city". As recently as last year, this place was a mess. With most of the tourist action long having moved to The Strip, downtown Vegas with its iconic hotels -- The Golden Nugget, the El Cortez -- had suffered a form of urban degeneration. Buildings lay empty, unemployment was high and morale was low. Sure, there had been attempts at gentrification -- like Streamline Tower, a 275 unit condo building completed in 2008 -- but the housing crash put paid to those. By 2010, says Hirise Living, Streamline had only three units sold, all distressed bank sales at an average of $115.00 per square foot.

Enter Tony, who visited the downtown area as part of Zappos' search for a new corporate headquarters to accommodate its growing workforce (Zappos is currently located a few miles out of the city, in Henderson). Downtown's problems and the fact that the city was about to move out of City Hall, leaving a giant empty building, gave Tony his big idea.

Working closely with existing downtown entrepreneurs like Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite (owners of the hipster-friendly Downtown Cocktail Room and the San-Francisco-and-Austin-esque Emergency Arts building), Hsieh began to affix post-it notes to the wall of his new apartment. Each note was an idea: City Hall would become the new Zappos HQ, injecting 2000 people right into the heart of downtown; Fremont Street East would play host to new restaurants, bars and coffee shops; there would be a free bus service to bring more people downtown; there would be parks; schools; book stores -- hell, whatever the town needed, Tony would build -- or work with people who could.

To kick things off, he bought up an entire floor of Streamline (now renamed The Ogden) to provide accommodation for downtown early adopters. (A few months later he bought a second floor. And then over dinner two nights ago, he casually mentioned that he'd bought up every other available unit in the building.)

When I came to Vegas to write my month-long Strip Diary, Tony was quick to contact me and insist on giving me a tour of downtown. I was skeptical. Every run-down town in America claims to be on the brink of a renaissance, and Tony would hardly be the first entrepreneur with big plans to regenerate a street or two. But what I saw in Vegas -- and wrote about here -- was something different.

For one thing, the guaranteed injection of 2000 Zappos employees avoids the problem of having to "build it and they will come". They are coming. Second, Las Vegas is already a world famous city, with excellent transport links and some incredibly wealthy residents (it's also becoming the place where successful tech entrepreneurs relocate after selling their companies: another Vegas transplant to contact me for my Vegas diary was MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson). Every year millions of people visit the city for trade-shows and conferences, and Vegas is only a 90 minute flight from San Francisco or LA. Encouraging people to move here is a way softer sell than asking them to relocate to, say, Tulsa. (If anyone decides to create an alternative to South by Southwest -- and, as I've written before, they should -- downtown Vegas would be the place to do it.)

So, for all these reasons and plenty more (Vegas is a hotel-dweller's mecca), Tony didn't have to work too hard to convince me to start my new company here. In fact, I suggested it. Over the past few months, I've felt increasingly at home here. I've made a bunch of new friends, and my old friends from San Francisco, New York, London and beyond have proved reassuringly willing to come out and visit. Hopefully that same enthusiasm for jumping on a plane will hold true when I start hiring.

Actually, during my five or six stays downtown I only met one person who had moved here and regretted it. It was maybe three months ago and he was an entrepreneur from LA who had heard great things about Vegas and had landed a few weeks earlier to investigate. "It's not the same as LA, man" he complained. "There's just not enough to do here yet. There will be, but it's not ready. I'm going to leave and come back when it's done."

I sympathised. Compared to San Francisco, too, downtown Vegas couldn't offer the range of late night food options, millions of interesting strangers, culture and arts scene etc etc etc that I'm used to. And yet.... after a few more visits, as I came to understand what was happening here and also started to see the Downtown Project's plans starting to become real, I became a convert. Where better to build the next big company than in a town that is one big startup?

And it seems I'm not the only person to think that way. Last week, as I was wandering back downtown from a meeting on the Strip, I heard someone shouting my name. I ignored it. But the shouting got louder. "PAUL!". I stopped and turned around -- to see the LA entrepreneur standing outside an apartment building across the street.

"Oh, hey there," I said, "I thought you were going back to LA."

"No way, man" he said, "I've been here for months now -- and I love it here. I've just bought an apartment in this building. I'm never leaving."