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Tony Hsieh's Las Vegas

© Larry White

This unconventional take on Sin City, from the Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, has more to do with community than gambling.

Descriptions of Las Vegas are replete with clichés. References to poker, Elvis impersonators and strippers are almost mandatory. It is, after all, difficult to describe Sin City without calling it, well, Sin City.

There’s nothing cliché, though, about Zappos chief executive officer Tony Hsieh’s take on Las Vegas. “I’ve never lived in a more community-focused place than here,” he says.

Really? Las Vegas? Hsieh (pronounced Shay) is specifically talking about downtown Vegas, an area about 15 minutes north of the famed Strip.

It’s the original Vegas—the place where Glitter Gulch was born in the mid-1930s; where you once went to get a good meal or a prescription filled at the drugstore. Over the decades, downtown Vegas has endured many ups and down, leaving it in the shadow of the shimmering Strip.

Nowadays, downtown attractions range from fried Twinkies and loose slots to the Fremont Street zipline, ridden mostly by drunken revelers, according to one local. “Community” and “downtown Vegas” seem as oxymoronic as balding hair.

But Hsieh, 38, isn’t given to hyperbole. Soft-spoken, unassuming and typically clad in T-shirts and jeans, he’s a visionary who built his online shoe company into $1 billion in sales before selling it to Amazon in 2009. He’s also created a corporate culture so heralded that Amazon has largely left Zappos alone, according to Hsieh. The company ranks as one of the nation’s best places to work and embraces core values such as “creating fun and a little weirdness.”

So, it’s not surprising Hsieh has an unconventional view of Las Vegas.

When he moved Zappos to the city from San Francisco eight years ago, Hsieh says he lived the cliché—partying and playing poker on the Strip. After a while, it got old and he settled into suburban life. But he found living in a McMansion in the desert isolating.

Then, he discovered downtown. A few hip bars and coffee shops had sprouted in the area, and as he got to know their owners, he felt more and more at home. Soon, he was going downtown three nights a week. When it came time to find a new headquarters for Zappos, it dawned on him that moving downtown could inject energy into the company as well as Las Vegas.

Next year, Zappos will relocate its headquarters and more than 1,000 employees into downtown’s former city hall building. Hsieh says that jail cells in the swoopy-looking 1970s building will be turned into a speakeasy bar. Nearby green spaces and maybe even a community pool will encourage residents to socialize around Zappos headquarters. But that’s just a part of his $350 million effort to revitalize the area, which he is funding with his own money.

Hsieh envisions new housing, start-up businesses, a school, parks, restaurants, yoga studios, and art and music festivals. (To learn more about his plans, visit downtownproject.com.) Rather than focus on the day-to-day running of Zappos, he’s spending most of his time planning the company’s relocation.

“If we get this wrong, it’s a 30-year mistake,” says Hsieh, referring to the lease term on the new headquarters.

To concentrate his efforts, he moved from the suburbs into a high-rise condominium downtown, blasting through walls to combine three units. His condo has a 360-degree view of lonely vacant lots, blinking neon lights and the former city hall building. He says the vantage point is a constant reminder of what he’s trying to create downtown. It’s also a practical base camp. Hsieh offers free stays in furnished units in his building to anyone interested in visiting downtown to learn more and invest in its revitalization.

“Almost 90 percent of the people who come here leave wanting to contribute in some way,” he says. “The area sells itself.”

It’s still a sales job, though. Once one of the fastest growing cities in the country, Las Vegas has been battered by the recession. It still has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. Pre-Hsieh efforts to boost downtown also faltered when the economy tanked. The recently opened Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown lures some of the world’s finest performers, but weed-ridden plots once planned for office buildings and shops sit empty.

Hsieh says it’s been easier to interest outsiders in his efforts than Las Vegas’ moneyed power players who in the past were promised more than was delivered. And Las Vegas isn’t exactly a hub for new business beyond tourism and gaming.

Yet, the city has undeniable charms. It may be a hedonistic mecca. But it’s also a global destination with superlative restaurants, world-renowned entertainment and posh stores. Downtown Las Vegas is not yet a locus for business travelers. But if it is anything, it is authentic, and for those travelers weary of the Strip, it’s a place to find a hip new bar or a slice of Las Vegas history, like the Golden Nugget casino, which has been around since 1946.

The Smith Center, where cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently performed, reportedly has some of the best acoustics of any center of its kind. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art has shown works from Claude Monet to David Hockney. And in keeping with Las Vegas history, the city recently opened a Mob Museum downtown.

Hsieh says that community is to a city what culture is to a company. And his effort to remake a part of Vegas is in some ways an exploration of whether Zappos’ business strategies can translate into urban planning. His philosophy: Bring diverse people together; let them collide and spawn a vibrant community filled with new businesses, organizations, restaurants and art.

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