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November 24, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Gentrification or positive progress? The great downtown debate

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Joe Schoenmann

From his 23rd floor condo, Tony Hsieh points out various targets of redevelopment for his Downtown Project, a $350 million, multi-year endeavor, to Ed Lantz, CEO of Vortex Immersion Media.

Tony Hsieh

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is seen in one of his rooms at the Ogden Friday, April 13, 2012. Launch slideshow »

When a young man with a billion-plus-dollar company comes to town saying he wants to create "community" even as he redevelops a neighborhood infested with crime, you expect what happened to Tony Hsieh.

The Zappos CEO was showered with praise for his plans, which included a $350 million, multipartner investment in downtown Las Vegas called the Downtown Project, also known as DTP.

Yet, a year and a half later, doubts have arisen. It’s almost impossible to find anyone downtown who hasn’t developed an opinion about DTP, either for or against it.

“Gentrification” has become the word of those who say DTP is displacing the poor and replacing them with places suitable only for those with money in their pockets.

On the other side are those like Jack LeVine, a self-described "card-carrying liberal,” who says if renewal downtown doesn’t happen, the same old junkies, hookers and homeless will remain the majority power.

“The whole gentrification issue is: We’re either getting better or getting worse, and if we’re getting better, people call it gentrification,” said LeVine, a real estate agent who has lived downtown longer than most people have lived in Las Vegas. “If it gets worse, poorer people can afford to be there. But people want to make it better, then people with money come in. Sorry, but that’s the way it works.”

LeVine is clearly in the camp that sees the positive in downtown changes. At the same time, he understands those who have a dim view of DTP.

To him, it boils down to public relations and what he sees as a poor job of communication between DTP and the community.

“I’ve been telling them for like a year and a half to include the local community in their process,” LeVine said. “It's not good for the revitalization of downtown when an independent project trying to bring the local community together is feeling a wave of resistance because of the reputation they're earning.”

That sentiment, more or less, is becoming clearer in reams of copy being written for and against the Downtown Project in various places on the Internet. Some of it is vicious. Some of it also could be damaging efforts to raise money to help restore the historic Huntridge Theater.

•••

The Huntridge, a 69-year-old theater at Maryland Parkway and Charleston Boulevard, has dropped further into decay in the near-decade since it closed. Three partners/businessmen — Michael Cornthwaite, Rehan Choudry and Joey Vanas — formed Huntridge Revival LLC and announced a campaign two weeks ago.

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The Huntridge marquee is shown Wednesday, May 15, 2013.

They want the public to give $150,000 toward the project. At the Save The Historic Huntridge Theater campaign on indiegogo.com, 12 levels of giving are offered. At the low end, $5 contributors will receive an “historic digital show poster.” Someone who gives at the highest level, $25,000, gets a lifetime VIP parking spot, keycard access to a backstage lounge, VIP facilities access, special offers and 250 votes in programming some of the theater’s activities.

Though the campaign seeks to raise $150,000, Cornthwaite said if it reaches $50,000, it will allow him and his partners to make their next payment to the Mizrachi family, who owns the building.

“If we get past that, it will likely be possible to fundraise separately for all of the other pre-work costs and/or have services contributed by other Huntridge lovers who just want to be part of its revival,” it says in the frequently asked questions section of save.thehuntridge.com. If not, the partners will ask indiegogo.com to issue refunds.

It's a unique fundraising plan for an organization that is neither government-connected nor nonprofit. But it’s also part of a fundraising wave called "crowdsourcing," found nationwide. Churches use it; tech startup companies use it; just about anyone who has an idea they need money for has tried or thought of crowdsourcing. One man a few months ago tried to raise money to buy a house in downtown Las Vegas that would be a co-working space and transitional home for techies moving here.

It failed, raising just $455 of a $125,000 goal.

At the close of business Wednesday, Save the Huntridge had raised more than $28,000, 19 percent of its goal, from 241 funders, with 29 days left in the campaign.

Even if the Huntridge partners reach $50,000 by early August, there’s a chance they won’t go forward, Cornthwaite said. Several factors have to fall into place, including — importantly — their perception of community support.

If it’s not there, they might pull the plug on the project.

•••

The Internet is today’s public forum.

Like the rest of the world, Las Vegas residents use the Internet to express their opinions.

Facebook’s Save The Huntridge page, which boasts almost 600 members, has become ground zero for a debate between those who like and those who don’t like the Huntridge revival plan.

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The Huntridge, during its movie-theater era.

Either for or against, most of the posts are from the same people. In that regard, the number of posts is not a good gauge for calculating how many are on either side of the Huntridge plan.

The posts also get personal and petty, childish, mean, and downright libelous, so it’s easy to see why people don’t want to add to the discussion. No one likes to get hammered for simply offering an opinion.

Those who support the theater argue about the good it will do for the area, that the three Huntridge partners aren’t vultures looking to make a quick buck off the backs of locals, and that if this plan doesn’t work, the Huntridge will be demolished and turned into another auto parts/dollar store/check-cashing/pawn shop mall.

In one thread, those against the idea label those in favor of it “gentrifiers.” They question the for-profit status of Huntridge Revival LLC. They question where the money will go.

Running through this foggy war of words is a sense that the Huntridge isn’t really separate from the Downtown Project. Cornthwaite avows it is. Those who know him say he wants it to be separate since many of his current businesses are heavily tied to DTP.

But then, Vanas also is tied to the Downtown Project, which is his partner in ownership of First Friday Las Vegas. Choudry, too, is partnered with the Downtown Project in his oversight and creation of downtown’s Life Is Beautiful music, food and art festival in October.

Those connections alone are enough to turn off some people.

•••

On the Save The Huntridge Facebook site, one entry is a blog post critical of the Downtown Project buying properties and buildings and displacing businesses with leases. Since it was posted on a site about the Huntridge Theater, it led others to wonder if Huntridge Revival’s eventual plan was to obtain big funding from the Downtown Project. And that was implied as being a bad thing.

David Anderson is a crowdsourcing veteran volunteering oodles of time to Huntridge Revival. He lives just a few blocks away from the theater in the so-called “startup house.” As dedicated as he is to the Huntridge project, he writes about his own qualms about DTP. Then again, he attests, Huntridge Revival is not part of the Downtown Project — whose “brass,” he believes, don’t like him.

“I don't agree with their methods; I think they're naive in many, many ways, but I do know that they don't claim to be experts on what they're doing … and I do know that they know very little about anything north of the freeway and very little about downtown proper, as well," he says. "In many, many ways, the whole thing is a huge (expletive), but it's also a fact of life that each of us can either deal with actively or just sit and complain about.”

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Property owned by the Downtown Project and related companies.

Local writer and computer coding whiz Josh Ellis wrote a 5,500-word diatribe that supported the Huntridge but tore into the Downtown Project.

“Like a growing number of locals, I am deeply, deeply conflicted about the vision for downtown that's being laid out by Tony Hsieh and his circle of friends, employees and business partners,” Ellis wrote. “The problem, I think, is how one defines the words 'community' and 'happiness,' which are words you hear a hell of a lot in Vegas Tech.”

He uses “Vegas Tech” to encompass DTP and the people who work for it.

“'Community-building' is the number one activity that Vegas Tech people engage in, with an enthusiasm that often borders on the unnerving. A phrase you often hear muttered around Vegas these days is 'drinking the Kool-Aid,' and you often hear Zappos and the Downtown Project — and Vegas Tech at large — compared to a cult.”

While Ellis is known for his writing acumen and his fearless posting of his opinions online, other Las Vegans aren’t touching the everlasting Internet with their opinions of DTP or the Huntridge.

But some, who spoke to the Sun on condition of anonymity, share Ellis’ support for the Huntridge. At the same time, they express frustration with DTP and worry would-be Huntridge supporters might abandon it because of DTP doubts.

“I don’t buy into the Downtown Project,” said one local businessman, adding that he sees its redevelopment to date as “scattershot at best.”

At the same time, he added, he hopes the Huntridge Project works.

“I question whether that building is worth saving, but I’d like to see it happen,” he said.

A real estate broker said he is turned off by the way “Downtown Project is throwing its money around” because of what could result if businesses don’t become self-sustaining.

“People are talking about what if Hsieh gets bored and decides he wants to, instead, save a village in Thailand,” the developer said. “We look at it and admire what he’s doing. But if this thing doesn’t catch, he may be doing more damage to downtown than he knows.”

A local economist said downtown would suffer a mini-recession if the “spigot gets turned off” suddenly and a major contraction of wealth is eliminated from the area.

Those who know Hsieh, however, say he’s in Las Vegas 100 percent. He’s not leaving. He’s been here and in Henderson some 10 years already, and this is his home.

“Well, there you go,” said one developer. “That’s nice to know. But maybe you’re the only one who knows that. We don’t know a thing about what’s going on.”

Then there’s that question: Does it matter what people think about DTP, especially as it pertains to the Huntridge Theater?

DTP employees say they are open. Every month they stage the Downtown Lowdown, during which plans and progress are sketched out for whoever shows up to the speakers trailer on Seventh Street near Fremont Street. They put out pamphlets with profiles of people and stories and updates about different downtown projects.

Since DTP purchased the Gold Spike, the former casino, many DTP employees work there daily out in the open. They aren’t hiding from anyone.

They also pay attention to what’s being written.

•••

Days after Ellis’ column, DTP contacted him and he met with some representatives, he said, in the Emergency Arts building at Sixth and Fremont streets. Ellis said they had a good talk; the DTP workers disputed some of the information in Ellis' column; he told them they needed to be more transparent and inclusive.

“What I’d like to believe is that they really can’t keep a handle on what’s going on because it’s growing so fast,” he said of DTP.

Indeed, over about the last 18 months, the Downtown Project has grown from roughly three to well over 100 employees. At the same time, employees say, DTP gets so many emails and calls, responding is an overwhelming task.

However, as someone involved with the business said recently, getting back to people “is one of our weaknesses.”

Jamie Naughton, whose official title is “speaker of the house” for Zappos and Downtown Project – she literally travels the world delivering keynote speeches to a variety of groups – said DTP was taking all of the criticism seriously.

“Every situation is unique and we try to address them as they arise,” she said. “There is a ton of misinformation out there on what we are working on or what we are not, and we realize that we haven't done a good enough job of communicating this out directly.”

DTP is starting to catch up, however, she added.

“We have spent the past few months meeting with various residents to better understand their concerns,” she said, announcing new ways to reach out to Las Vegas residents.

That includes something she calls “open office hours.”

“This would be when an individual can just drop in and talk with a member of our team,” she said. “These additions are fairly recent and will take time to implement and get posted to our Website.”

Anyone can go to downtownproject.com and find the contact page to be notified of dates and times to be contacted directly with updates.

Mary Hausch, UNLV associate professor of journalism, said Downtown Project might also try doing what “neighborhood casinos” do: market to surrounding neighborhoods.

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Krissee Danger gets excited talking about the Post-it note inspiration wall as she leads attendees through Tony Hsieh's high-rise apartment in the Ogden Hotel as part of the Downtown Project Tour in Las Vegas Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

“I don’t get any marketing material from (Downtown Project),” said Hausch, who lives in the John S. Park neighborhood with her husband, Councilman Bob Coffin. They live a block from Anderson’s startup house. “Coupons or a newsletter. Tell people where to park. Anything.”

As for the Huntridge Theater, a big effort is taking place Thursday night. Several panelists will answer questions about the theater project at 6 p.m. at the Mesquite Club, 702 E. St. Louis Ave. Panelists include Cornthwaite and Bob Stoldal, television news executive and Las Vegas Historic Commission member.

Talking via his cellphone, Ellis suddenly spots Vanas walking by and tells him he fears the Huntridge Theater project is “getting painted with the same brush” that's painting the Downtown Project.

Cornthwaite, meanwhile, questions whether people with doubts about the Huntridge Theater project are all that numerous. Maybe it’s just a few people online “trolling” under different names and false identities to stir the pot?

“I'm not really sure what there is to take issue with at this point,” Cornthwaite said. “We have been crystal clear about our intentions for the property since the beginning. My instincts tell me that the more vocal a few are against the project — and there are 100 supporters for every naysayer — the better the idea is and the more they really wish they were part of the initiative.”

He seems genuinely perplexed at the negativity he’s read online. He said he’s given himself a mandate not to respond to it anymore.

“If all of the negative energy was channeled in a positive direction,” he said, “just imagine what we all could accomplish.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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  1. I look forward to attending some of these informational meetings. My concerns are twofold: I really don't see how crowdsourcing should be an acceptable means for a for-profit company to gauge community interest in a commercial real estate purchase. I donate money to non-profits and charitable organizations. To me, a petition or poll should be used to determine whether or not the community supports it. An investment with a corresponding ownership percentage, however small, is a different story. The second, is the $15,000,000+ I've seen indicated as the price tag for the renovation of the Huntridge even viable? A 65% loan at 5% would mean a mortgage payment of $52,000+. Can the Huntridge generate that kind of profit?

  2. God bless Tony Hsieh! He is fulfilling the dreams of former mayors Oran Gragson, Bill Briare, and Ron Lurie.

    Steve Miller, former LV City Councilman for Ward One (downtown)

  3. I don't buy what the DTP is attempting. If they finish something, than maybe I'll be on board. All they've done so far is take the gaming and rooms out of the Golden Gate--no real big loss, except to the regulars. Now they're going to do the same to the Bunk House, undoubtedly changing its character.

    A year or so ago they bought 208 S 8th, a recently refurbished building that was nicer than all of the weekly motels and more affordable than the Ogden, which raised its prices when the DTP leased half the place. Now 208 is behind Henderson like stonewalls and a gate. The parking is gone. And it stands re-renovated and empty.

    They got rid of the little bodega next to Mamacitas. it stands empty. They've bought a lot, but I see no progress on anything.

  4. Hey Joe, would you tell us if Downtown sucked?

  5. "It's almost impossible to find anyone downtown who hasn't developed an opinion about DTP, either for or against it."

    Schoenmann -- and opinions are what everyone has, especially where there's change. You covered a good sampling of them here, and the posters filled in the rest.

    I'm in my third year living Downtown. Some of the changes are good -- the usual walking wounded tend to not go west of 11th. But then it's back to who has a dog in the hunt, no? Hsieh and the DTP have made Downtown a bit more yuppie, cleaner and infused a generally positive vibe. To some that's progress.

    "I would like to quote Juan Enrique....."

    tylerz -- good points. I hope those taking the donations repent and address them. They should have set up as a trust instead, then accountability for misusing funds would have been inherent.

    "The family of enemies, whose buzz you apprehend, are now nothing. . .Do not fear, therefore, these insects. What you write will be far above their grovelling sphere." -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Judge William Johnson, 1823, from "The Works of Thomas Jefferson" Vol. 12

  6. I am glad that Joshua Ellis has highlighted an important aspect of the Downtown Project's development plans.
    Although the Downtown Project has a lot of positives going for it, I am not alone in finding a lot of elitism in it. Yes, there are lots of wonderful speakers and wonderful people but at least for me the primary criticism which Joshua Ellis focused his concern on was the CURRENT and former residents of downtown who effectively are being displaced and indeed railroaded by current developments. The community that is being benefited has limited if no interaction with the underclass who has been occupying the space that is in state of renewal.
    I think that Joshua's attempt to enlist the support of @Vegas Tech to improve the lives of the homeless via his postings at https://www.facebook.com/groups/vegastec... reflects those legitimate concerns and realities.
    This is not just about what can be ... it is about what is and what has been. Let's not empower one "class" of persons at the expense of another ....