Tony Hsieh wants to revitalize old Las Vegas with $350 million. The 40-year-old CEO of Zappos has a new vision for the Fremont Street section of old Las Vegas. Using $350 million of his own money, Hsieh wants to develop 20 square blocks into what he hopes will become a Silicon Valley of the desert. Of the funds he will make available, $200 million will go to real-estate investments, $50 million to small businesses, $50 million to tech start ups, and $50 million for the arts and education.
Hsieh envisions a bustling retail and technological hub where residents walk to bars, gyms and restaurants. He wants people to live in a feel-good type of community similar to Austin, Texas. Google’s creative campus served as his inspiration. Zappos’ corporate headquarters, located in the former Las Vegas City Hall, has 2,000 employees. Hsieh wants them within walking distance from work. To do that, he must purchase buildings that once and currently have auto repair shops, bars, apartments and restaurants.
While people such as former Mayor Oscar Goodman welcomed the plan and called it a “watershed moment,” residents who have lived in the area have a different take. They consider the Fremont Street area as one of the last authentic neighborhoods of Las Vegas. Residents are being forced out of homes where they lived for years.
Lou Filardo, 68, is a Long Island, New York, transplant. A former political campaign manager, journalist and a cab driver, Filardo argues that development should not come at the expense of people living there. Half the households rely on some form of supplemental assistance. The welfare rate for the Fremont Street area of Las Vegas is three times the state average.
Filardo has seen his favorite sandwich store close, followed by a local market and bank branch. A sign of the changing times came when Downtown Express Oil & Tune closed. The owner of the shop was a few months behind in his rent and was told his lease would not be renewed. The building was purchased by Tony Hsieh. The storefront now services classic cars.
Development partners for Hsieh buy properties to house Zappos employees. Current tenants are told their leases will not be renewed and must vacate their property. For Hsieh, the burden of helping the poor is not his responsibility. He runs a for-profit firm and has not asked for state or federal grants for improvements. Hsieh wants to revitalize old Las Vegas with $350 million and wants to invest in an area that has been neglected for years.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman, wife of Oscar Goodman, who followed him into City Hall after his mayoral term ended, believes the greater good is to have a safe downtown. She cited how it was the city’s responsibility to help people unable to afford their current rents, but she did not point out specific programs.
When someone like Hsieh wants to put $350 million of his own money into creating a hip Google-style community in Las Vegas, people take notice. Goodman has a steakhouse inside the Plaza Casino that overlooks Fremont Street so he would certainly benefit from the rich and hip clientele Hsieh would bring to the city. The entire Fremont Street area of old Las Vegas would also benefit from a new clientele. The problem with the poor is that they have limited funds and no political voice to stem the tide of change. Tony Hsieh wants to revitalize old Las Vegas with $350 million, and there is little to stop him from doing it.
By Brian T. Yates