Las Vegas, land of glitz, gambling, and the Osmonds live show (for the moment), doesn’t seem at first glance to be a struggling city in the vein of, say, Detroit. But look beyond the casinos and fancy hotels and you’ll see that Vegas has a largely abandoned downtown area.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has made headlines recently for the Downtown Project, his $350 million gamble on revitalizing downtown Las Vegas (Zappos is currently based in Henderson, Nevada, but all 1,200-plus employees will move to Las Vegas’s old city hall structure in 2013). And now the Downtown Project has pledged $1 million to Venture for America, a nonprofit that places college graduates in underserved communities–like Las Vegas.
Hsieh first learned about VFA at a conference, where founder Andrew Yang “pitched it like Teach for America but for college graduates that wanted to go into entrepreneurship,” he says. “It sounded like something that was worth exploring.” So Hsieh decided to team up with the program, which also works in cities like Detroit and New Orleans.
As part of the partnership, the Downtown Project will get 100 VFA fellows over the next five years. Seven have already been working on the Las Vegas project for the past few months–the fellowship, which lasts for two years, is paid like a full-time job. In other cities, each fellow is assigned to a different startup, but in Las Vegas, all the VFA fellows work on different aspects of the sprawling Downtown Project. “Even during the good times, [downtown Las Vegas] has been kind of a neglected stepchild because it’s the complete opposite of the strip. We’re really focused on building a community for locals,” says Hsieh.
The first batch, says Hsieh, has “completely exceeded all of our expectations. They’ve rolled up their sleeves and made themselves a part of the community. Each of them has a different focus but at the same time they’re also a team in and of themselves. We throw random projects at them and they step up.”
VFA fellow Jude Stanion never thought he’d end up in Las Vegas. “Venture for America had us rank company and city preferences. I wanted to be in Detroit or New Orleans. I put Las Vegas at the very bottom of my list,” he says. “But I came out here to interview and I knew that this is where I needed to be. The Downtown Project is trying to solve some of the hardest problems.” Stanion’s fellowship is focused on urban connectivity; he’s helping to bring Las Vegas’s first bikesharing system into town, examining carsharing opportunities, and working with the city government and local transportation commission to create better downtown transportation options. “I try and think about it in terms of, how do you make downtown Las Vegas less car dependent while making it easier to get around and more livable?” he explains.
Josh Levine, another fellow, is helping to create a primary care clinic downtown. His work involves everything from editing videos to meeting with people who are running other clinics, he says. Meanwhile, fellow Ovik Banerjee is helping to build an early childhood center downtown, scheduled to open in August 2013. “We all work for the same company, but it’s almost like all seven of us are essentially working for different startups,” says Levine.
All of the fellows we spoke to plan on staying in Las Vegas after the two year fellowship is over. That’s not surprising–thanks to the Downtown Project, the city is becoming a fascinating place to watch (and presumably, to be a part of). “Every six months or so is a step up from the period before. It’s been pretty exciting seeing the change in energy and people coming downtown,” says Hsieh. “We’re building up our own small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen other bars and restaurants opening on their own.”
Says Stanion: “Personally, I’m worried it’ll be hard to leave Las Vegas for anything.”