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July 28, 2015

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Governor, city officials discuss revitalization of East Fremont Street

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Christopher DeVargas

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval talks to local media during the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 11, 2012.

It wasn’t something you see every day, or perhaps at any time in the past 20 years: a Nevada governor on East Fremont Street.

Gov. Brian Sandoval visited East Fremont on Wednesday afternoon, spending more than an hour in the Beat/Emergency Arts building, a coffeehouse/small-business center west of the El Cortez.

He didn’t have a security detail, and what might surprise Las Vegans: he didn’t need one.

East Fremont, once home to drug addicts and more empty stores and check-cashing businesses than visitors, is seeing redevelopment take root.

Sandoval’s presence, in response to the city’s invitation to tour the area, was a sign that the redevelopment and economic diversification taking place there is drawing notice statewide.

Not that any of the usual suspects drinking coffee downtown noticed this telling moment. Much.

“Just looked like some guys in suits to me,” said Las Vegas native Ginger Bruner.

Sandoval walked in with Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Councilman Ricki Barlow, City Manager Betsy Fretwell and a few others. They dropped by the second-floor tech library built by Zappos.com and visited with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, Molasky Group President Richard Worthington and others, including Michael and Jennifer Cornthwaite, whom some call the unofficial mayors of downtown for their longtime involvement in the area. They operate the Beat/Emergency Arts and Downtown Cocktail Room.

The governor listened intently to descriptions of East Fremont redevelopment plans.

Hsieh talked of Zappos.com, which he said has maintained 30 to 40 percent annual growth during the recession and will relocate its headquarters to the area next year. When he recounted how five tech startup companies moved here in recent months, largely as a result of Zappos’ recruitment efforts, the governor smiled and pretended to worship him with his hands extended and head bowed.

Everyone laughed.

When Amazon.com bought Zappos two years ago for $1.2 billion, Hsieh continued, the sellers were paid in Amazon stock. Since then, the stock’s value has tripled. Now Hsieh is personally investing $350 million in downtown — $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in tech startups, $50 million in education and $100 million in acquisitions.

Another $100 million is planned for residential construction because Hsieh wants to build a community and downtown economy that sustains itself. Based on his research, he said, that takes an average population density of 100 people per acre. Since that means building up, which is more expensive than building out — meaning traditional developers likely won’t get involved — he and Zappos will do it themselves.

“We might break even or even lose money, but for us, we’re not trying to focus on ‘return on investment’ but on what we call ‘return on community,’” he said.

When Hsieh finished, it was the governor’s turn.

Sandoval recounted the difficult but necessary decisions to cut budgets in 2011 because of the recession.

“I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed, but I know there’s a lot we need to do when it comes to education,” the governor said. “We want to ensure we’re producing graduates at the university level that all of you are going to need.”

As Sandoval and his staff spend the next year developing a budget to present to lawmakers in 2013, he wants input from people like Hsieh and others involved in economic diversification “so I can take that (information) to develop my package, primary of which is development and economic development.”

“These are the types of meetings that the public never has the opportunity to see and hear about,” he added, but this is the way ideas for new legislation that might help broaden the state’s economy can come about. “So if we have a downturn, we’ll have these other legs of the stool to keep the state and Las Vegas standing ...

“I never want to see the state brought to its knees like it was three years ago. That is not going to happen on my watch.”

The meeting ended. Hsieh handed out copies of the book, “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier,” from which he drew his 100-person-per-acre plan.

The governor left for an appearance at the International Consumer Electronics Show, and Hsieh remained at the Beat.

Outside, pedestrians walked along East Fremont recognizing it has changed but not realizing the transformation that may yet come.

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