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FN Spy the Magazine: Transforming Old Las Vegas

Zappos.com execs Tony Hsieh and Fred Mossler show off their redevelopment initiative.

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A rendering of the future Shipping Container Park

Photo By courtesy of Downtown Project

The entrance to the Fremont East district

Photo By courtesy of Downtown Project

A year ago, the walls of Tony Hsieh’s apartment overlooking downtown Las Vegas were plastered in Post-it notes and maps of the area as he began to brainstorm what the city’s Fremont East neighborhood could become with the proper attention and investment.

Now those plans are coming to fruition, and over the next six months the district will see rapid development. Already, new businesses have opened, construction projects have broken ground, tech firms have relocated — and that’s just a hint of what’s to come.

“Now that the land acquisition part of it is mostly done, we’re focusing more on building stuff or renovating space,” said Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com and founder of the Downtown Project, a $350 million community investment fund he has bankrolled to help transform the downtown area of Las Vegas into a vibrant, community-focused place to work and live.

“In 2013, we will make monumental strides [in the development of the downtown area] simply because a lot of the infrastructure we’ve been planning for the last 12 months will finally start coming online this year,” said Fred Mossler, Zappos’ head of merchandising who is also an investor in the Downtown Project and serves as a strategist and mentor. “That’s only going to increase the energy level and activity downtown.”

A major part of the plan is the relocation of Zappos’ corporate offices to the Fremont East neighborhood, in the former City Hall building. While the company’s formal move of its roughly 1,500 employees won’t occur until September, several projects are already off the ground, thanks to funding and support from the Downtown Project.

For example, in October, chef Natalie Young opened downtown restaurant Eat, and the lifelong aspiration has already turned into a profitable reality.

“Natalie had worked as a chef at The Hard Rock Casino for 10 years, working in the 24/7 Café,” Hsieh said. “She was about to leave town and move to Santa Fe, N.M., when I met her. I ran into her in a coffee shop and basically through a serendipitous interaction, we started talking. It turned out her lifelong dream was to open her own breakfast-and-lunch place. That has been open for a few months and is doing close to double their original projections [for business].”

And in January, Stitch Factory, a co-working fashion space, opened its doors. The facility gives fledgling designers access to machinery and materials that otherwise might be cost-prohibitive. It also offers community classes on fashion design, pattern-making and sewing.

Mossler said the Stitch Factory could be the seed that helps the area blossom into a full-fledged garment district, and talks are under way with potential business partners to bring apparel manufacturing to the area.

Hsieh also has been in discussions with companies interested in manufacturing footwear in the area. “We’re still finalizing things, but hopefully we can announce that in the next month or two,” he said.

Adding to the downtown fashion scene is Coterie, a men’s and women’s clothing boutique that opened this past fall.

Owner Sarah Nisperos said she wanted to offer designer fashion in downtown as a way to make a statement about the revival of the neighborhood.

“I opened Coterie here because I wanted to use my skill set to help the good guys,” she said. “Opening a retail store that has new clothes instead of the expected downtown vintage product speaks to the evolution of our revitalization. My store also provides another daytime hangout within the community, which is something we also need. My hope is that Coterie becomes a major platform for serendipitous collisions.”

Nisperos said she only stocks a small amount of women’s shoes, though she often helps clients find matching footwear on the Zappos website. “We’ll sit with them and help them through their order,” she said.

A few blocks away, Shipping Container Park — an outdoor shopping area where 40 businesses, ranging from restaurants and specialty food shops to retail stores — will inhabit low-cost space, is under construction and slated to open in July.

“We look at [the park] as a place to incubate businesses,” Mossler said. “It will give entrepreneurs the chance to have a small space. They don’t need to sign a lease for five years and make a bunch of capital improvements. They’ll be able to test out their concept and, if it works, we’ll be able to provide them with a larger space somewhere downtown.”

At the center of the park is a play area for children. On the dome covering the space, a 3-D scene will be projected, while an outdoor stage is set to host a variety of music and entertainment events.

Mossler said that while the park is sure to attract tourists, it was created with area residents in mind and not out-of-towners. “The goal is to build it for the local community,” he said.

Also under construction is the Inspire Theatre, a 150-seat facility designed to showcase speakers discussing a range of topics. “It’s all about the idea that visiting downtown will make you smarter,” Mossler said, adding that the space will also include a coffee shop and a rooftop bar.

Though the theater is still being built, the speaking series is under way, currently housed in construction trailers. Already, the program has attracted such high-profile speakers as documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock and AOL co-founder Steve Case.

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