Amidst the Downtown Project’s announced restructuring and round of layoffs, it felt a bit odd to be participating in Tech Cocktail’s so-deemed Celebrate Conference this month. Centered in the heart of downtown Vegas, the conference showcased the redevelopment work of the past few years, both local and out-of-town startups, and a slate of speakers focused on entrepreneurship and fostering emerging tech hubs. On opening night, I rode the elevator to the welcome reception with a seemingly downtrodden Vegas resident who shared that he was freshly laid off from the Downtown Project and founder of a recently failed startup. It was a blunt introduction, but his continued residence and commitment to Vegas would prove telling of the strength of community the project has fostered.
What most “upstart” cities we’ve worked with have in common is a convergence of corporates, top-tier universities, and a growing entrepreneurial spirit to drive pockets of innovation. As concentration of those pockets develops and small successes in the start-up community begin to be felt, the hope is that density increases and accelerates creative collisions, fostering an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem and pipelines for growth. However, another commonality felt in those cities, and a big hurdle to their development, is a lack of post-seed stage capital.
Vegas is different. Outside of Zappos, there are few corporates in the area and no proximity to top universities. Many in the start-up community feel distinctly like transplants – if it weren’t for the project, there wouldn’t be much opportunity for them in Vegas, a town known for its casinos and entertainment. What Vegas does have is a distinctly supportive community, an ambitious vision, and a significant, dedicated pool of capital to fuel it.
The heart of the Downtown Project sits in stark contrast to the older Fremont Street area, which remains overrun with trinket shops, bizarre sidewalk acts, and an endless flavor selection of alcohol-infused slushies. A few blocks over, the feel is a mix of old Palm Springs with the cool of hipster Austin. New co-working and incubation spaces sit alongside redeveloped coffee shops and restaurants, which pave the way to the Container Park, a clustering of shops and restaurants built in and around old shipping containers, that promise to be the modern community center of a transforming area. You can see the vision that recent transplants bought into.
Beyond the refreshed blocks, a unique set of circumstances favorably position downtown Vegas to transform:
- $350M capital commitment to grow the area
- Recently announced commitment to provide more post-seed stage capital
- Comparatively low cost of living
- Favorable tax policies
- Dedicated co-working and incubation spaces
- Strong community with key ties in the tech world
These attributes support and bring the Downtown Project’s goal of the “3 C’s” – collisions, co-learning, and connectedness – closer to a reality. The hope is that by redeveloping the downtown area and providing top-notch infrastructure for start-ups, the talent and corporate issues can be bridged, and a sustainable, growing economy can emerge. And there is demonstrated success: just a week prior, Vegas Tech Fund-backed and local company Rumgr was acquired by eBay. While there seems to be a feeling of exhaustion – that this rebuild and vision of economic rebirth should be closer to a reality by now – it’s clear that dedication to the long-term success of downtown Vegas and a strong, supportive community persist.
Setbacks are part of every undertaking and without careful reflection on how to reshape the plan go-forward, well-funded businesses can fall into a trap of burning cash on an unsustainable path. The Downtown Project has restructured and refocused to drive better, more self-sustaining changes in the long run. I’m betting on Vegas.