This radio segment will tell you exactly why Vegas’ Downtown Project hasn’t delivered on its promises


HsiehThis 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.



Starting right now: The NSFWLIVE radio show is back for one day only. Listen live!


570929642-1024x679Be careful what you wish for.

A couple of months ago, I launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce an uncensored history of NSFWCORP, the news magazine (with jokes) that I founded back in 2011 and which was acquired by Pando back in February.

As is expected when launching crowdfunding campaigns, I spent some time coming up with different reward levels — $ 5 for the ebook, $ 20 for the paperback — that kind of thing.

Partly for my own amusement, partly under the principle of “nothing ventured,” I decided to add at least one ridiculously high level reward. In anyone plunked down $ 5,000 in support of the book project, I promised we’d produce a special one-off come-back edition of our radio call-in show, NSFWLIVE.

And so of course someone paid the five grand.

I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw the PayPal notification. Not only had someone paid five thousand dollars for us to sit in a small room for five hours, playing Taylor Swift and arguing with people on the phone, but he had asked to remain anonymous. He didn’t even want public credit — he was just doing it because he liked the show, and wanted to help support the book.

Today from 11am: Listen live to the (one day only) return of NSFWLIVE.

True to my promise, the show starts today at 11am Pacific time (2pm Eastern, 7pm London), hosted by me and NSFWCORP-to-Pando’s Mark Ames and Chris Goscinski. It will also feature as many of the old NSFWCORP team as we can muster. Confirmed guests so far include Yasha Levine (reporting live from Ukraine), Leigh Cowart, The War Nerd (in Turin), Dayvid Figler (in Vegas), Ramon Glazov (in Australia) and Jason Walsh (in Ireland).

We’ll be taking listener calls throughout the show, and no topic is off limits. I’m particularly keen to hear from Pando readers on the issues we’ve been covering here recently: Uber, Secret, Pierre Omidyar, Surveillance Valley, Techtopus and the rest. Lines open a little after 11am and will stay open as long as the show lasts.

But there’s more.

As Mark, Chris and I started planning the show, we remembered just how much we miss producing live radio, particularly call-in radio. It seems like a shame to get the team back together for just five hours. Also, we’re now within striking distance of the maximum funding total for the NSFWCORP book, which is just ridiculous, and will allow us to include all kinds of bonus features and gimmicks to the ebook, paperback and hardback editions.

So, we decided to bring back another old favorite NSFWCORP feature: the ability for listeners to pledge additional money to extend the show, with all contributors going to the crowdfunding campaign. In return, contributors get all kinds of fun (and increasingly strange as the show goes on) on-air rewards. As of the time of writing, pre-show contributions total almost $ 6k, which equates to around six and a half hours of showtime.

The toll-free studio number is 877 959-6739. Alternatively you can email or follow @nsfwlive. Or just enjoy the show, starting at 11am.

In the meantime, in case you’ve absolutely no idea what NSFWCORP was (or need a reminder), here’s a quick blast from the past…