Could Downtown Become America’s Fire Art Capital?

Tony Hsieh

The giant, fire-breathing praying mantis perched at the edge of Downtown’s new Container Park could soon be joined by other flame-based art installations throughout the neighborhood, if Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has his way.

“One of the things we’re excited about is bringing a lot of fire-burning elements Downtown. There’s no city that really owns the concept of fire yet,” Hsieh said Monday during a speech at SXSW V2V, a technology and creativity conference held at the Cosmopolitan.

Hsieh’s keynote address, titled “The City as Startup,” mostly covered ground familiar to Las Vegans who have been following his $350 million Downtown Project redevelopment effort over the last year and a half, but offered a few new insights into his evolving vision.

“Purposeful Visitors”

The art is just one element of a non-stop festive atmosphere Hsieh said he hopes to create in the neighborhood.

“I think of it as SXSW meets TED meets Burning Man, but as a lifestyle, rather than an event,” said Hsieh.

Wonder why the Downtown Project hasn’t said much about building more housing in the area? Hsieh said the project has moved away from a focus on residential density—an oft-cited figure in the effort’s early days was 100 residents per acre—and is instead focused on increasing “collisionable hours,” times in which people can serendipitously bump into others with whom they can collaborate and build community.

Those “collisionable hours” can also come from a pool of “purposeful” visitors who travel to Downtown multiple times throughout the year, Hsieh said. Downtown Project hosts about 100 such visiting entrepreneurs, creatives and other assorted hipster pilgrims each week, enticing them with free hotel rooms in the Ogden, the high-rise where Hsieh lives. The goal, Hsieh said: creating 100,000 “collisionable hours” per year.

Upward Mobility

For Las Vegans wondering about the role of low-income Downtowners in a neighborhood revitalization that’s creating $400-a-month carsharing programs and $13,000-a-year preschools, Hsieh answered that indirectly after one questioner asked how the Downtown Project could be recreated in other cities, like Detroit, that face major economic hardships.

Downtown Project doesn’t focus as much on pure job creation as on upward mobility, Hsieh said. He likened the city to Zappos, where, he said, entry-level employees come in with limited skills and are encouraged to develop into senior managers over time.

“You want a pipeline where if your income level is [for example] $10,000 a year, there’s opportunity so you can get all the training and mentoring and so on to get to $12,000 a year,” he said.

PHOTO BY NICOLE ELY

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