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May 26, 2022

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Zappos brainstorming how to make downtown more livable


Justin M. Bowen

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is shown at a Las Vegas City Council meeting Dec. 1, 2010, when it was officially announced the existing City Hall building would be used as the headquarters for Zappos.

Zappos at Fremont East

Tony Hsieh stands next to one of the empty storefronts on East Fremont Street. While the area is beginning to see signs of a business life, dozens of Hsieh's employees at are working on visions to bring music, education, restaurants and other cultural amenities to the area, hopefully by the time the company moves its headquarters and 1,200 workers into City Hall in 2013. Launch slideshow »

This is how Zappos is going to change the world.

Eight people are sitting around a table next to a split-level swimming pool and spa, eating chicken wings and hamburgers grilled by caterers and sipping beers and mixed drinks served by a hired bartender.

OK, so this is the meal before the tectonic shift.

And what’s about to be changed isn’t the world, literally.

But it might as well be for “Zapponians,” 30 of whom are fueling up before a brainstorming session Monday night at the home of Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO. Because in two years, Zappos’ employees — 2,000 by then — will move their headquarters into Las Vegas City Hall. (City employees will move into a new building in 2012.)

They want to be sure some things are in place first. Like good restaurants. A music scene. Coffee shops. And other signs that demonstrate the downtown urban landscape will continue a trend to break free of its stale past and become its own robust community.

Because let’s face it, despite the meager turnaround of a small section of East Fremont Street, denizens of Las Vegas’ suburbs (even Hsieh lives in Southern Highlands, though he, too, plans to move downtown) — still hold a “bah, humbug” view of the most aged urban neighborhood of Clark County.

Few of those gathering at Hsieh’s house live downtown, either.

They’ll say they love downtown. But live there?

And that’s the challenge being discussed around the table by these Zappos workers who want to change their world. How to make downtown more livable?

It’s difficult to dismiss decades of suburban migration, leaving in its wake homeless people and homes now filled with law offices whose attorneys go home to the suburbs every night. At the same time, there’s not a lot of affordable housing within walking distance of City Hall.

So Hsieh and his staff have started an ambitious company project. To make downtown Las Vegas the place to live.

He and his staff first identified “tracks” — technology, food, arts, bars, coffee shops, music, education and affordable housing — the building blocks of a great place to live.

Then they put it out there to employees: Want to volunteer to come up with ideas to create the best education scene, or music scene, technology scene or whatever scene that Las Vegas has ever witnessed?

Hundreds of volunteers answered the call.

Hsieh’s house is track central. While Zappos volunteers are burning up the Internet with emails regarding their individual tracks, his house is the place where they meet to hash out ideas.

Tonight’s focus is on the education track — the most difficult. The goal appears nothing short of fantastic because it is one that seems so far removed from what most people grew up with: creating a privately funded school that caters to the creative mind, whose teachers are devoted and dedicated, with curricula that stimulate students and create not good test-takers but critical thinkers.

Facilitator Vanessa Lawson and track leader David Fong lead the group through exercises to create marketing themes, develop curriculum ideas and mission statements, and generally list the kinds of traits they’d like to see in a school if money were no object.

For one, instead of conforming to standardized school curricula, which are often criticized as ineffective, the school would be taught “The Zappos way,” which has yet to be formulated.

The discussion turns to cost, then to whether Zappos employees could start pulling money from their paychecks to put into an education fund for their children.

More ideas: Focus on parental involvement. Don’t assign too much homework. Hire teachers who are experts in their fields. And, of course, use iPads, not textbooks. (That’s a given. This is a company, after all, that owes its success to the Internet.)

Hsieh sits in the back, sipping a drink. He doesn’t inject himself into the mix as much as he listens and takes it in. He doesn’t flinch when someone suggests that instead of the school charging $10,000 per student, maybe Zappos would pay for the children of Zappos employees.

Discussions on other tracks are further developed. Technology, for instance, is going like gangbusters. This group has subgroups looking at creating a tech library, another examining an incubator for technology-based businesses. The music-track people are coming up with ways to turn downtown Las Vegas into a live-music mecca; the restaurant trackers want to do the same with food. And you can’t ignore art, bars, coffee shops and bookstores, either.

Time will tell, of course, whether the ambitions of one company and its employees will come to fruition.

On this night, however, failure crosses no one’s mind. It’s going to happen and they know it and in this way: One day, Zappos children will live downtown and go to a downtown school that garners more praise and envy from schools in the tony ’burbs. It’ll crank out children excited about education — little geniuses who move on to change the world in their own right.

The 30 trackers start filing out after three hours. All smiles.

Hsieh says he wants only one thing.

“It’s about bringing a real sense of culture and community to downtown Las Vegas,” he says. “It’s about revitalizing a town, and we’re super excited about it.”

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