A Spark in Downtown
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
I grew up in Las Vegas, and so did my father and his father before him. We love the city -- the unforgiving landscape, the sordid history and the characters who make their homes in the casino lounges. However, our perspective of Las Vegas is different from most of America's. Where we see a city of endless opportunities, an interconnected web of desert landscape and human ingenuity, most people see topless pools, margarita yardsticks and the never-ending spin of roulette.
Who could blame them? The perspective of Las Vegas as Sin City is not a gross misunderstanding but a carefully constructed promotion. For instance, 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' was created by the city's tourism department in 2003. The department, wanting to rebrand Vegas as something more than just a place to gamble, hired an ad company to create a new marketing strategy for the city. PR experts constructed the slogan around research that attempted to define the relationship people had with Vegas. The findings: freedom. "The freedom to be someone we couldn't be at home"; a feeling also associated with the bygone 'Wild West.' Although PR firms constructed Vegas' slogans, perhaps with Nevada "right in the heart of the golden west" - as the state song goes - the city was always geographically situated for some form of liberation.
Even at its establishment, while ranchers herded their cattle around the natural spring, and railroad men tended to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake lines built through Las Vegas in 1905, gamblers, prostitutes and bootleggers made their homes in the illicit speakeasies. And when gambling and prostitution became legal in 1931, the slot machines moved from the backroom to the lobby, famous artists flocked to casino lounges and organized crime (for a time) flourished; Las Vegas became a worldwide sensation and a popular tourist destination that made the city and some locals very rich.
However, some saw riches beyond the bright lights of the casinos. My great-grandfather, A.E. Cahlan, was one of them. From 1926-1960, he transformed the Las Vegas Review-Journal into the largest subscribing paper in the state, supported New Deal programs through his column "From Where I Sit" and pushed for programs that benefited the community. His brother, a journalist who got his start running up and down the football sidelines yelling the yardage gained and plays made through a megaphone, said that his brother, "took the attitude 'Don't ever sell Las Vegas short.' They didn't, and many locals after them didn't either. As Ed Garcia, a local lobbyist and Las Vegas resident for twenty years said, "So many people wanted that thing, a thing to be proud of."
However, the primary industry is still tourism. Today, 368,900 jobs and counting are supported by tourism. The industry is what keeps the lights on - $6.3 Billion in gaming revenue in 2015. Don't fix what's not broken, right?
Wrong. While locals weren't calling for death to tourism, they were yearning for industries that diversified the economy and catered more towards the needs of the community. In the 1990s, a push for a more robust and vibrant community, saw an opening of small creative businesses, experimental restaurants and art centers around downtown, but mostly at the Strip and farther out into the suburbs; but when the recession happened, everything suffered. Construction projects stopped mid-build and even the slightest push to turn downtown Vegas into a cultural hub halted.
Until 2013 and Tony Hsieh.
The Zappos CEO in 2013 decided to make downtown Vegas the next entrepreneurial hub, a Silicon Valley in the desert. Even after the build-up of the downtown in 1995, the area was still largely old and run-down. In its heyday, it was the location of the most famous casinos, but after Steve Wynn built luxury hotels in the 1980s on the Strip, the area quickly began to decline. The casinos and buildings crumbled, the courthouse was a watering hole for the most vulnerable and the motels were deteriorating. As a kid, I didn't visit downtown often. My mother worked for the City of Las Vegas in the City Manager's office in the center of downtown and knew the challenges to revitalizing an aging downtown. However, where my mom, myself and most locals saw a deteriorating downtown, Hseih saw potential.
Hsieh invested $350 million into a revitalization project. He built offices for his Amazon-owned shoe company, bought the City Hall building, provided seed money for restaurants such as Itsy Bitsy, bars and other ventures such as the container park - a retail and restaurant outdoor mall made completely of containers with a giant fire-breathing grasshopper from Burning Man in the front.
"There was a master plan," Garcia remembers. "People came to Hsieh and said I have an idea and he would help start them up. He'd give them a place to build and some were success stories."
Many locals welcomed the project with open arms; hoping that the new look would revitalize the 1990s downtown projects and provide them with more resources for art, education and jobs. During the Aspen Institute, Hsieh set out the goals for the project - "If we can make downtown Vegas a place of inspiration, creativity and entrepreneurial energy and discovery and so on, in probably the place people would least expect it, then there's really no excuse for any other community or city."
Unfortunately, the reviews to the project are mix. As the Las Vegas Review Journal reporter, John Smith said, "With its bohemian vibe and Hsieh's masterful media mambo, the Downtown Project has bankrolled some small businesses and has attracted international attention to the Fremont Street corridor. That has generated a lot of good copy, but the development group can't be satisfied with the tangible results so far."
In 2016 Hseih said that he is still invested in the project but that he would have done a few things differently. However, critics who have been in Vegas long enough to see investors come and go, assume this is just another project not a revitalization. However, other cities have similar histories of urban stop and start. The elements of a successful urban revitalization are just not firmly defined. Urban planners discuss the merits of better education, booming private companies and community collaboration. Urban revival is hard to plan, fund and predict. Sometimes it's just the right people in the right place at the right time.
Although the Downtown Project hasn't been the re-start people were promised, it may be a kick-start the downtown needed. Hseih provided the infrastructure and maybe the spark, that will help rebrand downtown Las Vegas as a cultural hub for entrepreneurs. In an interview with MSNBC Hsieh said, "To see kids and families walking around in a place that was previously pretty dangerous, that's progress." Whether Hsieh will completely reshape the downtown is up for debate. What is indisputable is that Mr. Hsieh sought to make a difference. And as a sixth-generation Nevadan, I applaud anyone's attempts to grow Las Vegas. A.E. Cahlan didn't sell Vegas short, and it seems like locals won't either.