The Strip Diary, Day Twenty One: From Sin City to Sim City -- Tony Hsieh's Plan to Rebuild Downtown Vegas

What does the CEO of a company that was acquired by Amazon for almost a billion dollars do next? He rebuilds downtown Las Vegas, obviously.
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Day Twenty One: Encore at Wynn ($259)

"So, how are you going to write sarcastically about all of this?"

Tony Hsieh makes a good rhetorical point. We're standing in the Downtown Cocktail Room, the epitome of a hipster San Francisco bar: hot young locals lounging on sofas, sipping cocktails with names like 'Sniff Happens' and 'Persephone's Pomme'; moody lighting; bathroom stalls with two-way mirrors so you can look out as you pee; half of the people in here work for an Internet company. You know the drill.

The only difference is, we're not in San Francisco. We're in Las Vegas. And all of these Internet people work for Zappos, the Internet shoe retailer that relocated here from San Francisco in 2004. I've been invited to join company CEO Hsieh (pronounced "shay") and his team for one of their regular Friday night social events so that he can tell me about his big new project.

And what does the CEO of a company that was acquired by Amazon for almost a billion dollars do next?

He rebuilds downtown Las Vegas, obviously.

Since the start of my trip to Las Vegas, I've received dozens of emails and tweets encouraging me to get off the strip and explore "downtown", the area around Fremont Street which formed the town's original gambling center, before the advent of the Strip. "There's a thriving arts scene downtown!" some wrote. "There are great bars!", insisted others. Frankly, though, there seemed to be more than a touch of wishful thinking to the claims: pressed for specifics, most mentioned First Friday -- the monthly arts and culture "block party" held downtown on the - uh - first Friday of every month. At a push, a few could identify a specific bar or coffee shop they frequented, but the overall consensus from those I spoke to - cab drivers, waiters, PR people, actors and lawyers alike - was that Vegas is a at heart a small, transient, town yearning for a cultural community.

Even Tony Hsieh -- who wrote a book called "Delivering Happiness" and is capable of putting a positive spin on almost anything - admits that "Vegas isn't really known for having a sense of culture or community." But, unlike the cab drivers and waiters and PRs and actors and lawyers, Hsieh is actually in a position to do something about it.

Zappos currently employs 1100 people at its main headquarters in Henderson. The company boasts of its culture of happiness and how employees are made to feel part of a giant family. Indeed, on Thursday, en route to a tour of the Zappos campus, I asked my company-supplied driver what first attracted him to the job. "I was living in Las Vegas but all my family was in New York," he said "People told me that working at Zappos was like joining a family - and it is. Every night I have at least one or two invitations to parties or social events organized by other people from the company. The difficult thing is knowing which ones to say no to."

Comparing those two realities -- the uber-social Zappos family (set to double in size in the next two years) and Vegas' perceived lack of community, particularly downtown -- Hsieh saw an opportunity to 'deliver happiness' to all sides.

When the City Council announced plans to change the location of City Hall, Hsieh made his move, buying the building and announcing plans to move Zappos HQ from Henderson to Fremont East. As Mayor Oscar Goodman told the Las Vegas Review Journal the move "revolutionizes the way downtown will exist in the future... It creates a critical mass of [creative] folks... They'll be over at the Arts District. They'll be milling around the downtown and creating energy."

Put simply: the relocation of the Zappos family to Fremont East will inject a ready made community of 2000 people into the area, transforming its social and cultural scene from "burgeoning" to "established" at a stroke.

The big move won't happen until at least 2013, but already the effects have been seen: Zappos employees are starting to look for homes nearer to the new location, and every night after work more and more of them make the journey downtown to see what all the fuss is about. Which is what brings Hsieh and his team to the Downtown Cocktail Room.

Come on," he says, "I'll give you the tour."

Fremont street is a curious thing - "Checkpoint Charlie" as one Zappos-ite likened it - forming a dividing line between the tourist-heavy Fremont Street Experience and the 'real' downtown: the burgeoning hub of bars, coffee shops and arts and entertainment venues which make up Fremont East.

The effect on crossing from the tourist zone to the local zone is instant, and a little trippy. Suddenly gone are the gigantic plastic cups of booze and the staggering, belching drunks, and in their place swarms a thick cloud of hipsters, munching gourmet hotdogs from curbside food carts and patiently lining up outside drinking hole with names like "The Beauty Bar". As Tony and I walked, something started ticking away in my brain. A feeling that I'd been here before, and not just because there's also a bar called The Beauty Bar in San Francisco's Mission district.

Continuing on, past a sign for 6th Street - "this whole area is closed to traffic at the weekends" -- it clicked: the streets of Fremont East feel uncannily like the streets of Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest festival. Stepping inside the bars, though, one is instantly transported West to San Francisco: the inside of Vegas' Beauty Bar is the spitting image of it's San Francisco counterpart (later Googling would confirm they have the same owners).

Another recently-opened Fremont East bar that should be in San Francisco, but isn't, is "Insert Coin(s)": essentially a karaoke bar for gamers. Open until 6am, the bar offers multiplayer games on giant flat-screens as well as coin-op arcade classics: The line outside stretched halfway around the block - but, fortunately, I'm with Tony so there's no waiting. Everyone in Fremont East knows Tony. The bar's owner comes over to say hello. "You've come at a good time," he tells me when Tony explains that I'm writing about the rebirth of Fremont East, "you're witnessing the start of something big here."

A block or so away from Insert Coin(s) stands City Hall which seems as good a place as any for Hsieh to spell out his vision, not just for the building -- "there are jail cells in there; we're thinking of turning them into nap rooms, or maybe a speak-easy" -- but for the whole of downtown Vegas.

"This will be a completely different area in the next five years," he says, "we're bringing food, live music, an entertainment scene; we've even talked about opening a charter school. Did you ever hear of the game Sim City?"

"Of course."

"Well, for us it's like playing Sim City in real life. One tagline we've come up with is 'from Sin City to Sim City'..."

He pauses.

" know, like adding another little hump on the 'n'"

It's impossible not to love Tony.

Speaking of which, if I were a cynical man, then I'd be convinced that what happened next had been set up in advance. "Excuse me, are you Tony Hsieh?" say the slightly breathless fellow who accosts us as we walked back towards the Cocktail Room. Tony extends his hand, instinctively -- clearly he gets this a lot.

The man proceeds with his pitch; he's the founder of a not-for-profit art collective, and was wondering whether Zappos might care to display some of their art. The moment brings all of the pieces of Tony's vision together: Zappos, local art, downtown Vegas... "Sure," says Tony, "in fact we're having drinks at the Downtown Cocktail Room, why don't you come by and I'll introduce you to the person in charge of our art." Like I say, Tony couldn't have scripted the encounter better. Delivering happiness indeed.

Even the Downtown Cocktail Room itself is conveniently on-message, owned as it is by Michael Cornthwaite. Michael and his wife Jennifer have been described as "the first couple of Fremont East", responsible for numerous local artistic and cultural initiatives including "Emergency Arts", a cultural center, housed within the former Fremont Medical Building. Where once there were waiting rooms and doctors surgeries, now the space has been taken over by dozens of independent artists and retailers.

Tony's tour of Emergency Arts takes me past painters and fashion designers and tattoo parlors and even the headquarters of the 'Burleseque Hall Of Fame', each neatly packed into its own space -- "look at this: there's a whole hair salon built into an old waiting room -- isn't that great?" It is great. On the ground floor of the building sits The Beat Coffeehouse which, judging by the number of people who have suggested meeting there during my continuing exploration of off-strip Vegas, has become the de facto social hub of Fremont East.

Again, the vibe at Beat is unlike anything I'd experienced in Vegas so far; but very like what I'm used to seeing in places like San Francisco or Austin. (Even the name screams San Francisco, although actually it refers to the fact that the coffeehouse also sells vinyl records.)

Finally back at the Cocktail Room, I ask Jennifer Cornthwaite to explain Fremont East's problem. Why, given the lines around the block at Insert Coin(s) and streets bustling with local hipsters, had so many locals complained to me about the lack of community downtown? I'd asked dozens of self-described locals for suggestions on where the local arts and cultural scene can be found. With the exception of First Friday, none of them had been able to offer specific recommendations. Unless -- "were they trying to keep me -- a tourist -- away?"

"No, it's surprising how few locals even know about these places," Cornthwaite said, clearly exasperated. "We're trying to raise awareness, but it takes time." She's also keen to persuade out-of-towners to venture down, away from the Strip, she insists, but -- another echo from San Francisco -- admits that she doesn't want the area to become flooded with drunken tourists.

At the Downtown Cocktail Room, that "people like us" test starts with figuring out how to open the damn door. It's fun to watch the increasingly drunk procession of tourists passing by, trying to push on the glass wall at the front of the bar to gain access. In fact the real door is a handle-free metal panel tucked away to the left. "We didn't design it to confuse people," Michael Cornthwaite insists, "but it's pretty effective at keeping out drunk people." (The locals vs tourists attitude is contagious: I hesitated for an embarrassingly long time before deciding to include the 'secret' of the door, or even the name in this piece).

Another of Jennifer Cornthwaite's goals is to attract some of the creative talent from the Strip to venues around Fremont East. "Las Vegas has some of the world's best musicians, and artists and performers. There's so much artistic and creative talent in the town," she says. By way of example, Cornthwaite mentions Absinthe -- the circus-meets-burlesque show I've been raving about for the past two weeks. "A big part of me really wants Caesars to screw it up," she says, "then we can be like 'come put the show on here!' We'd be the perfect venue for it." She's not wrong.

In the meantime, given the echoes of Austin and San Francisco, surely it's time for Fremont East to host its own arts and technology festival, to rival South by Southwest. Especially as -- paging Portlandia -- many early adopters are declaring the original festival "over". Vegas plays host to the CES conference every January. "Why not pitch Fremont East as a kind of Vegas Fringe for those guys?" I suggest.

Cornthwaite likes the phrase "Vegas Fringe", but as for the other stuff "It's already happening. During this year's CES, I asked around the bar, who was in town for CES? It was like -- woah -- so many of them were. We just have to keep spreading the word."

Fortunately spreading the word is something Tony Hsieh is very, very good at. This, after all, is the man who bought a tour bus once owned by the bass player from Dave Matthews Band and drove around America on a "Delivering Happiness Tour" to promote his book. The bus is parked down the street, and Tony offers to give me a ride back to my hotel, stopping only to pick up a gourmet hotdog on the way (price $3, with toppings including pineapple and crushed potato chips).

"I always order what I call 'an underdog'" he says, "that's where you put the condiments on first, and then the dog on top, so all the stuff doesn't fall out."

I laugh. Every day millions of people complain about the messiness of hotdog toppings. But the difference between those people and Tony Hsieh is that Tony didn't just bitch about the problem. He fixed it.

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