This week I was a guest on Las Vegas public radio’s State of Nevada to talk about the ongoing state of the Downtown Project. For some time, I was going back and forth to Vegas for my husband’s work so I had some insight then. Now– like a lot of us whose interest was piqued by Tony Hsieh’s $ 350 million plan to remake Downton Vegas– I’m mostly watching from the outside. So I’m not sure how much insight I added.
But the contrast between the other two guests and what they said told you everything you need to know about why the Downtown Project has done some interesting stuff, but appears from the outside to be stumbling. One was the new CEO of the project Mark Rowland and one was the former Mayor of Austin, Texas Will Wynn– also a consultant to the Downtown Project. (Indeed, Vegas Tech Fund invested in Pando and NSFW too.)
There are many small differences between Austin’s successful revitalization of its downtown and Vegas’ troubled one, but the conversation kept coming back to one central theme: Time and planning. Austin had a very methodical approach to revitalizing its downtown. It relied on architects and city planners. It made early bets that would pay off down the road– like tearing up streets to run cooling pipes under them, delivering cost-effective air conditioning options into the most blighted open areas. It didn’t focus any early efforts on trying to recruit hip tech workers to downtown. It focused on building a retail core that would attract them, knowing they’d come later. It was plodding. One step in front of the other.
Contrast that to Downtown Vegas, a heavily funded private effort that sought to build outdoor space for families, dozens of small businesses, a school, healthcare centers, an artistic community, coworking hubs around multiple industries, a new national hub for startups, a music festival, and remake Vegas transportation all in the first few years of its existence. $ 350 million was a huge amount of personal wealth for Hsieh to commit to this plan– as has been written ad naseum. But for an undertaking of this magnitude it was nowhere near enough. The time scale was nowhere near realistic. And — as Hsieh bragged at our Pandomonthly two years ago– he didn’t have a single urban planner on staff.
Early on, I was a critic of these efforts compared to much of the press, but I find myself in the strange position today of arguing that it hasn’t “failed.” The investments in real estate the group has made alone may yet prove to be lucrative and there’s no doubt the area is more vibrant than before. My criticism– which I made on air– is that they are rapidly losing credibility because the group simply won’t own up to what’s gone wrong.
Changes in management– whether Hsieh deemphasizing his role or Rowland stepping his up– are always massaged to sound like “evolutions” where in reality they are changes, reactions to how things are going. People have been recruited to town with great fanfare, only to leave quietly and never be spoken of again. Even what appears to be the winding down of the Vegas Tech Fund has been positioned as “doubling down” on the companies that have worked.
Don’t get me wrong: They are wise to focus on the hits, versus further spraying and praying. Indeed, many of the moves that seem to signal “failure” to many are a sign– to me– that the project is growing up. But just admit it already. You said this was an experiment. Experiments are only useful if we honestly asses the outcomes. I would love to see a genuine post where the group owns up to what worked and what didn’t in this experiment of re-building a city like a startup. If they did it all over again would they focus on just small business and not tech? Would they hire a city planner on staff? Would they focus more on investing in locals versus bringing in transplants? We can only guess from the outside.
Because the truth is, while there have been huge failures, there have been successes. But increasingly, no one believes the latter if they won’t own up to the former.
I was chagrined at the end of the call when the host asked Rowland what mistakes the group has made that he could learn from, and he couldn’t cite a single one. As I told him on air, I’ve got a whole list if he’d like to call me. If he does, I’ll let you know.
Listen to the discussion here.