Last week, tens of thousands of people came to Las Vegas for CES, where they spent their time milling around the Convention Center and comparing selfie sticks, fancy TVs and robots, trudging to the dozen or so other distantly-placed hotels where related events took place, and apparently drinking a lot. We went off the beaten track to take a gander at another aspect of tech life in Las Vegas.
A group of entrepreneurs — tapping some $350 million funding from investors like Zappos founder Tony Hsieh — have been building a new economy in Downtown Vegas, with tech a very consistent theme courtesy of the Vegas Tech Fund, which backs startups that set up shop in the city. It’s an effort that you can read in a number of ways.
First and maybe foremost, it’s smart and practical: the shabby, much-neglected Downtown area is crying out for regeneration, and there are a lot of pre-existing buildings and other infrastructure already there.
Plus it taps into a bigger trend of decentralization in tech beyond Silicon Valley. It’s no surprise that one of the businesses we looked at, an early-stage incubator called The Mill, was inspired by a similar program in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But on the other hand, the Vegas project is ambitious and not always perfect in its execution. Part of the reason that Downtown had previously developed into such an economic ghost town is because of Vegas’ relentless culture of growth: the desert, the thinking goes, is limitless (it’s not, but that’s another story). And so when one thing appears old or worn out, just build something new somewhere else.
Can that ingrained tide — which is still very much in force in Vegas and only subsided a little even during the worst parts of the sub-prime housing crisis — be reversed?
As you see in the video, residents answer with a pretty confident yes.
While Vegas is known for artifice to the extreme (look! Venice! New York! Paris! Arthurian castles! Beautiful Water Wonderlands!), the people who are trying to make a go of creating a sustainable tech economy in in the city are a little more sober.
They know Downtown has certainly had its ups and downs. The positives have included the sheer number of businesses that have been funded by Hsieh and others, and also the significant move of Zappos from is office-park former home in suburban Henderson into the old City Hall buildings, smack in the center of Downtown.
But negatives have not been absent: just months ago,
Hsieh stepped down from a leadership role amidst a lot of negative accusations arose around the project “bleeding money” on going-nowhere investments and follies. And there have been other sad stories, too.
But I’d argue that the bigger picture is that the city to hold a lot of possibilities. Neither Rome nor Vegas’ approximation of it, Caesar’s Palace were built in a day, and sans continuous jackpots, there is yet much more good to come.
Correction: Hsieh was never in fact the CEO or in a leadership position at the Downtown Project. A statement via a spokesperson: :I am the CEO of Zappos.com but I’ve never referred to myself as the CEO of Downtown Project, and I’ve never considered myself as being in ‘day-to-day management’ of Downtown Project. My role continues to be as an investor, advisor, and equivalent of a board member that sets high-level general direction and strategy but is not involved in day-to-day management of people or projects.” We regret the error.