LAS VEGAS — He’s a painfully private entrepreneur with very public dreams for this city’s decaying downtown core.
Around Sin City, giddy officials are heralding online shoe retailer Tony Hsieh as a visionary, the latest in a line of moneyed Las Vegas dreamers such as billionaire Howard Hughes and casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman says Hsieh is offering people a chance to open their dream businesses, and “that can’t be bad.” Former Mayor Oscar Goodman’s description of the city’s confidence in Hsieh harks back to the mayor’s days as a mob lawyer: Anyone who doubts Hsieh’s sincerity, he said at a public meeting, should have his legs broken.
Using $350 million of his own money, Hsieh has embarked on a development project that city officials hope will transform the blighted neighborhood just east of the Fremont Street casinos into a Silicon Valley in the desert.
Hsieh, the 40-year-old founder and chief executive of Zappos.com, envisions a bustling retail and technology hub spanning 20 square blocks where residents walk to restaurants, bars and gyms in a live-work community with the feel-good fraternity of a “Cheers” episode.
Hsieh calls downtown — a world away from the Strip and home to many of the city’s poorest residents — a “blank slate” that could come to resemble the bustling neighborhoods of clubs and galleries seen in Austin, Texas.
Inspired by the creative campuses at Google and Facebook, Hsieh is moving about 2,000 of his own employees to a new headquarters in Las Vegas’ former City Hall, an area that until now has been home to down-market casinos, neighborhood cocktail lounges and auto repair shops.
The Downtown Project, Hsieh’s development arm, has purchased dozens of properties for Hsieh’s vision of blurring the lines between work and play. The new, upscale Container Park, opened last year, features an art gallery, a beauty salon and boutiques selling fine wine and e-cigarettes. In front sits a curious piece of art: a towering statue of a praying mantis.
But while city officials have welcomed the development plan — a “watershed moment,” Oscar Goodman called it when the Zappos transfer was initially approved in 2010 — residents who have long embraced the down-to-earth vibe of East Fremont worry about the march of big-money development into one of Las Vegas’ last authentic neighborhoods.
Leading the resistance has been longtime downtown resident Lou Filardo, who has written letters, called City Council members and rallied neighbors to argue that redevelopment should not come at the expense of residents in the city’s poorest ZIP Code, where half the households rely on supplemental assistance and thewelfare rate is three times the state average.