Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, the online shoe and apparel shop, wants to more than just lead his company into greater profitability, he wants to lead Las Vegas into a more competitive city for business, particularly high tech startups, and a place for young professionals to live and play. In fact with his Downtown Project, the $350 million urban experiment to build “the most community-focused large city in the world” in downtown Las Vegas, he has quietly emerged as possibly the most important man in Las Vegas.
Hsieh is moving Zappos from suburban Henderson to the old City Hall building in downtown. The headquarter move itself will cost an additional $40 million to renovate. By moving Zappos into downtown Las Vegas, Zappos will be the pillar in his vision of revitalizing the downtown area dramatically, where it is dominated by bare lots and check-cashing stores, and make the city a place where his employees would want to live and play. His plan is to help local businesses as well as attract business outside Las vegas and Nevada to move in to “Sin City” as not just a place to gamble and have fun for a weekend but to make it one of the coolest, smartest cities in the world.
Hsieh’s idea of the Downtown Project began with finding a cool bar to hang out in downtown. In 2004, when he first moved Zappos to Henderson, he was hanging out at the Strip but also discovered the Downtown Cocktail Room. He got to know the bar's owner, Michael Cornthwaite, and within months of happy hour conversations, Cornthwaite convinced Hsieh to move Zappos downtown.
"It was almost too good to be true that [City Hall] was a few blocks away from Michael's bar and all of that," Hsieh tells BusinessInsider. "Originally, we were just saying, any plot of land anywhere. We'll just build our own campus like Google or Apple or Nike. Michael convinced us not to do that. Apple and Nike have great campuses for their employees, but they're not integrated [and don't] contribute to the community around them. They're kind of like these little islands."
It took Hsieh awhile to actually commit a plan to move downtown. That day came in late 2009 when Amazon bought Zappos for $1.2 billion. Flush with cash and a growing workforce, Hsieh knew that on an operational and logistic level, it was time to start moving Zappos downtown.
Hsieh began the downtown transition by moving into The Ogden, a luxury apartment complex nearly across the street from City Hall. Eventually he rented 40 rooms, where guests, some of Zappos employees and the Downtown Project team now live.
The Downtown Project is ambitious not as much because of the dollar figure. Las Vegas after all is home to billion dollar casinos. What makes the Downtown Project so impressive is the mission, to revitalize downtown Las Vegas into a World class destination for everyone, businesses, locals and tourists. The core of the downtown project is to invest in $200 million in residential and real estate, $50 million in tech startups, $50 million in small businesses, and $50 million in arts, education and culture.
Las Vegas Tech Fund, the fund started by Hsieh as part of the Downtown Project, has already invested in nine startups. His goal eventually is to invest in 200 startups at up to $500,000 each. That means potentially there will be 200 new high tech companies based in downtown Las Vegas in a few years.
Zappos of course will be the pillar of the downtown revitalization by bringing in 1,500 employees into the area. Just Zappos alone moving downtown will create jobs in other areas by attracting more businesses such as restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and many other small businesses catering to well paid and sociable employees. The city of Las Vegas estimates that the initial economic impact when Zappos moves downtown will be around $336 million. And that’s not counting the additional several hundred million dollars that Hsieh is planning to invest.
All this because he wanted to find a cool downtown bar.
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