Is This Downtown Project’s Savior?

Tasked with steadying Downtown Project’s business ventures, Mark Rowland is fighting a good, transparent fight

Photo by Elizabeth Buehring

Photo by Elizabeth Buehring

“If you go into a new job as a CEO and things get better within the first few months, don’t think that has anything to do with you.”

Mark Rowland says this at the beginning of a packed 30-minute chat at Inspire News Café. The CEO of Downtown Project Ventures—the company that tends to Downtown Project’s brick-and-mortar ventures, such as Container Park, Gold Spike and The Market—is now in his fifth month on the job. Which puts him halfway through what he describes as an introductory process: “For the first three months, you just sit back, listen, learn and see how things work. Then you spend maybe three months dabbling.”

And then?

“Then the next six months will be important. After that, I could be judged. Which is interesting, because in the last couple of months, there have been some massive improvements.”

To be honest, it’s tough to see those improvements from street level. Downtown Project has behaved a bit like a wounded animal since last September, when the company laid off 30 percent of its staff. Several DTP-supported businesses have closed their doors, most recently Coterie. And you no longer see the big, splashy press rollouts; it’s been a while since Tony Hsieh has declared that downtown Las Vegas will become “the world capital” of anything. (Last I checked, it was “fire art.”)

All that said, one improvement is readily visible: Rowland himself. The affable CEO—a business mentor with a strong track record of running successful companies in his native Australia, among them Wagamama and StyleTread—has become ubiquitous on Fremont Street, riding his stand-up Trikke from one DTP Ventures business to the next. Not only has he been visible, he’s been kind of transparent: If you ask Mark Rowland how business is going, he’ll give you an honest answer—even if the news isn’t good. He’ll take a meeting with nearly anyone who asks for one, even if they’re not affiliated with DTP or any other Hsieh enterprise.

“If you celebrate a mistake, then everyone else in that room can learn it’s OK to be vulnerable.”

In contrast with the Downtown Project of the past—an unrepentantly sunny-faced operation that seemed allergic to bummer news—Rowland’s forthrightness is a bit of a revelation. Ask Rowland if Container Park is doing well, and he’ll spit it right out: “Yes, traffic is steadily increasing, but it is impacted significantly by weather. … We have to work on making it as comfortable as possible for people who visit there in the summer.” Ask him about those “for sale or lease” signs that popped up on the Western Hotel and former Eden Hotel properties, and he’ll tell you with a laugh: “That was a mistake. Somebody decided to put a sign up, and then somebody else decided to ask them to take it down.”

Before recently, I had rarely heard anyone associated with Downtown Project use the M-word. But Rowland wants DTP to own it: “Mistakes are OK, as long as you learn from them. So every two weeks we have a huddle, and everyone gets to stand up and say ‘I stuffed up, I did this, and this was the outcome.’ And everyone gets a round of applause. If you celebrate a mistake, then everyone else in that room can learn it’s OK to be vulnerable, and it’s OK to be transparent and honest.”

Other internal DTP changes include something the organization never previously had: a set of core values. Downtown Project’s four main core values are “Make Epic Happen,” “Embrace Adventure,” “Do What’s Right” and “Come Together.” The latter two are virtues that many champions of Downtown have been requesting of DTP for a while now: to be a player for Team Downtown, which includes more than just the properties Hsieh owns.

For now, the pieces appear to be moving into place. Container Park is wildly popular, even on sweltering days. Some projects once thought dead—chief among them, the conversion of the Fergusons Motel property to dining and retail—are moving forward again. A few of the more successful businesses—including Vegenation, Big Ern’s BBQ and Grass Roots—might expand beyond Downtown. And even the businesses that close down are being tended to: Rowland has talked to the crew from Coterie about their next move.

In the meantime, if you’d like Downtown Project Ventures to hear you out, Rowland is interested. Just look for the guy on the Trikke. “It’s been really cool to get us back out into the community,” he says. “I’m sure there will be some amazing things that come from it.”

Vegas Seven