Mona Shield Payne
Wednesday, March 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It was late at night more than a week ago when the Iowa college students arrived in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas for the first time is exciting. So late or not, some took a stroll around the emptied streets of downtown.
It wasn’t pretty.
“It was kind of scary,” one of the University of Iowa students recalled.
That’s the kind of reaction some might expect, but it could also be interpreted as a warning that the students, here as part of a class focused on helping downtown Las Vegas, might not be able to get past their fears and focus on their task.
Viewpoints, however, have a way of changing in the light of day.
Asked a few days later, almost all of the students from Iowa City said they could envision living in Las Vegas.
“Some of us are already talking about getting a house here,” Storm Vaske, 21, said.
After graduation, of course.
Vaske is one of 14 students involved in a class called “Reimagining Downtown.” The semester-long class is focused exclusively on downtown Las Vegas with funding help from downtown’s reimagination czar, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
The students, with Professor David Gould, spent their spring break here last week.
Their aim: Create something that benefits downtown Las Vegas.
“It has to be something that adds value to the community and is planned for sustainability and continuation,” Gould said weeks before arriving in Las Vegas.
So one by one during a discussion in the new Work In Progress offices on Sixth Street, they talked about what they saw and generally what they might envision doing on a short deadline (completed this summer) and on a tiny budget.
Here are a few of their observations and thoughts:
• “Downtown is full of young, passionate people not so different from ourselves with tons of wonderful ideas. If they can do this, so can we.” — Adam Plagge
• “There’s potential to expand this even further. … I’d like to do something to stimulate the expansion … stimulate the creativity of the people who are already here.” — Phil Monfils
• “I’ve seen how much more powerful it is to collaborate with each other than to be cutthroat. Look at Silicon Valley, which is very cutthroat and competitive, which might be good in the short term, but for the long term it’s so much better to be collaborative.” — Natalie Conlon
• “It’s exhilarating to be around people who worked so hard to get where they are and have different directions, but all of them have the underlying theme of making a difference in the community, not just trying to reach their own personal goals.” — Drew O’Bleness
• “There can be someone 10 feet away who doesn’t know anything about the Downtown Project. … These people can be a big source of information and have a big influence on what’s going on down here. Maybe reaching out to others in the community and listening. We need to find those people and have their ideas, too.” — Chelsea Gaylord
Touching on Gaylord’s comment, some of the students wanted to visit less-savory parts of downtown beyond the relative safety of a few blocks around Fremont, Sixth and Seventh streets.
At the same time, someone also noted the need for greenspace.
“I wish there was a park down here and some way to make the streets a prettier place to be,” someone said.
The students took their impressions back to Iowa City, where they'll have seven weeks to come up with a plan. They’ll have a budget of roughly $50,000 to make it work.
Gould said Tuesday they’ve narrowed their plans to three general ideas: an art project, a playful way to create serendipitous meetings, and something to do with health and food.
Before leaving Las Vegas, Hsieh told the students it’s good to be passionate but “begin to work on the details to actually execute their idea,” Gould recollected.
“Tomorrow, we start working on a business plan,” the professor said, after which some local entrepreneurs will review it and ask questions to hone it further.
The students are committed to “doing something that makes an impact, an impression on the community,” Gould added. To finish the project, the students will stagger return trips to Las Vegas, a few weeks for each student, in June and July.
Before he left Iowa City, Gould said his colleagues intimated he was “insane” for going to Sin City with a bunch of 20-somethings.
“They thought I’d be pulling them out of jail cells,” he said.
In fact, Gould marveled that Thursday, the night before a scheduled presentation to Hsieh, the students stayed in their rooms and worked. “And I didn’t even have to suggest it; they just did it,” Gould said.
All of his students, he added, are trying to come up with a way to spend the entire summer, instead of just a few weeks, in Las Vegas.
“They are talking about how they wished they were back in Las Vegas and all the inspiration they got out of downtown,” Gould said. “If (Hsieh’s) experiment is about bringing people together and getting them excited to be part of something, I think my students are a terrific test case.”
Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.