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September 2, 2014

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Zappos brainstorming how to make downtown more livable

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Justin M. Bowen

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is shown at a Las Vegas City Council meeting Dec. 1, 2010, when it was officially announced the existing City Hall building would be used as the headquarters for Zappos.

Zappos at Fremont East

Tony Hsieh stands next to one of the empty storefronts on East Fremont Street. While the area is beginning to see signs of a business life, dozens of Hsieh's employees at Zappos.com are working on visions to bring music, education, restaurants and other cultural amenities to the area, hopefully by the time the company moves its headquarters and 1,200 workers into City Hall in 2013. Launch slideshow »

This is how Zappos is going to change the world.

Eight people are sitting around a table next to a split-level swimming pool and spa, eating chicken wings and hamburgers grilled by caterers and sipping beers and mixed drinks served by a hired bartender.

OK, so this is the meal before the tectonic shift.

And what’s about to be changed isn’t the world, literally.

But it might as well be for “Zapponians,” 30 of whom are fueling up before a brainstorming session Monday night at the home of Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO. Because in two years, Zappos’ employees — 2,000 by then — will move their headquarters into Las Vegas City Hall. (City employees will move into a new building in 2012.)

They want to be sure some things are in place first. Like good restaurants. A music scene. Coffee shops. And other signs that demonstrate the downtown urban landscape will continue a trend to break free of its stale past and become its own robust community.

Because let’s face it, despite the meager turnaround of a small section of East Fremont Street, denizens of Las Vegas’ suburbs (even Hsieh lives in Southern Highlands, though he, too, plans to move downtown) — still hold a “bah, humbug” view of the most aged urban neighborhood of Clark County.

Few of those gathering at Hsieh’s house live downtown, either.

They’ll say they love downtown. But live there?

And that’s the challenge being discussed around the table by these Zappos workers who want to change their world. How to make downtown more livable?

It’s difficult to dismiss decades of suburban migration, leaving in its wake homeless people and homes now filled with law offices whose attorneys go home to the suburbs every night. At the same time, there’s not a lot of affordable housing within walking distance of City Hall.

So Hsieh and his staff have started an ambitious company project. To make downtown Las Vegas the place to live.

He and his staff first identified “tracks” — technology, food, arts, bars, coffee shops, music, education and affordable housing — the building blocks of a great place to live.

Then they put it out there to employees: Want to volunteer to come up with ideas to create the best education scene, or music scene, technology scene or whatever scene that Las Vegas has ever witnessed?

Hundreds of volunteers answered the call.

Hsieh’s house is track central. While Zappos volunteers are burning up the Internet with emails regarding their individual tracks, his house is the place where they meet to hash out ideas.

Tonight’s focus is on the education track — the most difficult. The goal appears nothing short of fantastic because it is one that seems so far removed from what most people grew up with: creating a privately funded school that caters to the creative mind, whose teachers are devoted and dedicated, with curricula that stimulate students and create not good test-takers but critical thinkers.

Facilitator Vanessa Lawson and track leader David Fong lead the group through exercises to create marketing themes, develop curriculum ideas and mission statements, and generally list the kinds of traits they’d like to see in a school if money were no object.

For one, instead of conforming to standardized school curricula, which are often criticized as ineffective, the school would be taught “The Zappos way,” which has yet to be formulated.

The discussion turns to cost, then to whether Zappos employees could start pulling money from their paychecks to put into an education fund for their children.

More ideas: Focus on parental involvement. Don’t assign too much homework. Hire teachers who are experts in their fields. And, of course, use iPads, not textbooks. (That’s a given. This is a company, after all, that owes its success to the Internet.)

Hsieh sits in the back, sipping a drink. He doesn’t inject himself into the mix as much as he listens and takes it in. He doesn’t flinch when someone suggests that instead of the school charging $10,000 per student, maybe Zappos would pay for the children of Zappos employees.

Discussions on other tracks are further developed. Technology, for instance, is going like gangbusters. This group has subgroups looking at creating a tech library, another examining an incubator for technology-based businesses. The music-track people are coming up with ways to turn downtown Las Vegas into a live-music mecca; the restaurant trackers want to do the same with food. And you can’t ignore art, bars, coffee shops and bookstores, either.

Time will tell, of course, whether the ambitions of one company and its employees will come to fruition.

On this night, however, failure crosses no one’s mind. It’s going to happen and they know it and in this way: One day, Zappos children will live downtown and go to a downtown school that garners more praise and envy from schools in the tony ’burbs. It’ll crank out children excited about education — little geniuses who move on to change the world in their own right.

The 30 trackers start filing out after three hours. All smiles.

Hsieh says he wants only one thing.

“It’s about bringing a real sense of culture and community to downtown Las Vegas,” he says. “It’s about revitalizing a town, and we’re super excited about it.”

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  1. Nice to see private business step up and work on redesigning downtown. The whole city should pull together to support this because this is exactly what you need. Good luck!

  2. "It's about bringing a real sense of culture and community to downtown Las Vegas," he says. "It's about revitalizing a town, and we're super excited about it."

    I'm thrilled that Zappos is putting its efforts into helping with Downtown revitalization. But let's not forget that there are plenty of people who have been pushing for and working toward this goal for the past 20 years. And those players have indeed improved Downtown (if anyone can recall what, for the most part, Downtown was like 20 years ago). And that what has happened in the past three years, particularly, has been nothing short of a transformation (all the new businesses, all the new construction ... the nationally respected Neon Reverb music festival, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Fifth Street School, Soho and Newport and Juhl, all that's happening in the Arts District and all that is in the pipeline that will be online before 2012...). Downtown today is a far, postive leap from downtown in 2000, yet oddly much closer to downtown 1965.

    So welcome to Downtown, Zappos crew! Something amazing is happening, and your assistance in pushing that along would be great. Just remember that you are assisting with a revitalization with which many folks are already deeply involved, both financially and emotionally; you are not creating from whole cloth.

  3. "...despite the meager turnaround of a small section of East Fremont Street..."

    To be accurate the article should have told the truth -- that "small section" is a block long, and half the businesses on the south side are vacant. The side with The Beat rules, especially with Insert Coin now open.

    "Nice to see private business step up and work..."

    Cool_Hand_Luke -- it's what I've been saying elsewhere like a broken record, it's small businessmen like Hseih who will save this country, not government. Commerce like Zappos needs to thrive, and that will happen only if government gets a LOT smaller and off people's backs.

    Contrast this article with the other today about the continuing saga of local government effort to shut down Dotty's, check that out @ vegasinc.com/news/2011/may/19/resort-association-seeks-ban-slot-taverns-dottys/

    "We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force." - Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

  4. Downtown has the potential to be a great place to live. It could actually be a real community, instead of the faux communities the developers built all over Las Vegas.

  5. KillerB is correct. The bureaucrats should get the red tape out of the way and let private enterprises do what they do best.

    It's the local governments sign ordinances, zoning rules, excessive fees, etc. that hurt economic growth.

    Doubt me? Paint your business name on the side of your own business building downtown and see how quickly the Nazi sign police show up.

    Open a taco shop and witness TWO bureaucrats WITH BADGES AROUND THEIR NECKS from the Nevada Dept. of Industrial Relations (whatever that is) demanding to see proof of workers compensation insurance. Paperwork at the other office...get a notice to close down the taco shop immediately.

    Yeah, and some say Nevada is business friendly....my %$#.

  6. I have lived downtown for 11 years. The transformation that has taken place since then has been fantastic. Scores, if not hundreds of people have been involved with the revitalization and redevelopment of Downtown. The list of newer restaurants, night spots, art galleries, other retail, housing options, and cultural spots, is quite extensive. 30 years of decline can't be cleaned up overnight, but Downtown is well on it's way to being THE place to live in the valley. The Zappos crew is yet another positive piece of the puzzle. Every downtown mover and shaker, resident and business owner, I have spoken with welcomes Zappos and the live/work/play culture they bring, Here's to yet another phase of the ever improving Downtown Las Vegas. Good vibes, good times.

  7. it might be better with the guvmint out of city hall - hey, you know the sunny ronnie reagan thing - one of the most dreaded words is I am from the government and I am here to help you! wow, some the the greatest liars in the world.

  8. If The Casino Industry showed just a small token of the incredible effort that Zappos is bringing to Downtown, the Entire Valley would be a showcase.
    Great Going Zappos and all other Downtown Boosters - Downtown is the Heart of The LV Valley.
    I would suggest a Security Ring as they have in London, where every inch outdoors is covered by Monitored Security Cameras and a No Nonsense Policy is enforced.

  9. ronster...I own 4 businesses and have always had workers comp for every employee. My complaint is with a government bureaucrat walking into my business unannounced and demading a copy of an insurance form or threatening to "close this shop immediately". That is not business friendly. And why do employees of the Nevada Dept. of Industrial Relations wear and display actual badges around their necks??? Do they have the authority to arrest me? And why did it take 2 of them? The insurance form was at my other office.

    That alone is a scary thought. What's next, the IRS knocking on our homes with guns and badges demanding to see proof that we have purchased health insurance.......oh wait, that's coming soon.

  10. Instead of building private schools, why doesn't Zappos put money into the local schools? That way they save money, use it as a tax right-off, while helping the local community move forward. I live downtown & don't want Suburbanite-like HOA walls into a community that is suppose to flourish from Zappos, not a bunch of Ivory Towers. They could give out all the iPads to each student, save a of tax dollars that result in our community to be a new Dot.com Valley

  11. However, KillerB is not correct about the South Side of that block of Freemont. The Griffin, the tattoo shop, the Beauty Bar, the pizza joint, and Don't Tell Mama are all on that side. I think the two parcels on either end are the vacant ones.

  12. Does everyone forget that Zappos is part of Amazon? In a townturn or switch of culture for that organization Zappos could leave Vegas. I worry that too much may be put into that basket.

    Looking at what Zappos does and how many other companies offer similar also owned by Amazon it is insane not to think that along the line a consolidation will happen.

    Anyone look at what has happened to Fernley NV to the north after Amazon opened it distribution center with the promise of great jobs, but instead they blow through a lot of temporary workers using employment agencies over permanent jobs.

    The majority of Zappos employees are in KENTUCKY (as are most of Amazons HQ and training) and no promise has been made to bring those jobs to Nevada. Our legislature has done a great job running down the costs of operating from no inventory taxes to lowest workers comp rates in the nation for warehousing.

    I fear this company could be the dot bomb of the moment dipping its toe into our downtown with an enthusiastic CEO thrilled to be here, but just like Intel (who had a whole city build up around it in WA state) it can move on to another place with no obligation to our community.

    As exciting as it sounds I have seen it happen too often in other places CO, WA, OR, that local government gets too excited about one messiah that will leave us with vacant (yet interesting) buildings after they are done with us.

  13. "However, KillerB is not correct about the South Side..."

    JerryW -- I just go by what I see from my table inside The Beat. Didn't say there was nothing open on the other side of the street.

    Really, go east on Fremont past the Fremont Experience, pass The Beat and what's there? The El Cortez takes up the entire north side of the next block, there's that big old empty store or something on the south side, then that little mart, then Mamacita's (good food, but it would be a lot more tolerable if they'd turn down that damn Mexican disco rap on the big screen), then an empty lot. Past that it's mostly empty lots and closed storefronts. So the point is still the "turnaround of a small section of East Fremont Street" is very small indeed.

    Good to see someone else enjoying it besides the touristas.

    "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music" -- Nietzsche quote and Megan Fox tattoo