How a shoe company executive is using music and art to rebuild downtown Las Vegas: Alan Cross

Before everything moved to The Strip, all the action was in downtown Las Vegas. The Golden Nugget Casino. Fremont Street. Bugsy Siegel’s El Cortez. But when the big glitzy hotels, casinos and resorts began appearing to the south, Las Vegas’ old core went into decline.

That didn’t deter Zappos, the eco- and socially-conscious online shoe company. Led by co-founder Tony Hsieh, Zappos set up its headquarters in Las Vegas’ old city hall in an attempt at breathing new life into the downtown area with office space and industry.

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The company became an online retail juggernaut. When Amazon noticed what was going on, they bought the company for US$1.2 billion in 2009. Hsieh (who had already sold a previous business to Microsoft for US$265 million) could have bought an island somewhere and disappeared forever at the age of 36.

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Instead, he bought an Airstream trailer and moved into a trailer park in the city’s core and started up the Downtown Project, an effort to re-develop downtown Vegas. At first, it was all about finding a place for Zappos employees to work and live. Then it kinda got out of control.

Hsieh went on a buying spree, snapping up chunks of unwanted downtown real estate, not to build hotels and casinos, but to build the area back up into a place where regular people wanted to live, work, and play. In other words, Hsieh is the anti-Donald Trump.

This is where the Life is Beautiful Festival, one of the world’s most unusual music festivals, comes in.

Every September, five kilometres of fencing enclose 18 square blocks of downtown. Hotels, restaurants, and businesses inside the fence become part of the festival’s footprint. A series of stages of various sizes are set up in vacant lots and parking lots and feature everything from world-class headliners (this year included The Weeknd, Florence and the Machine, and Arcade Fire), a great selection of hip-hop (N.E.R.D., DJ Snake, Tyler, The Creator), plenty of EDM, a strong helping of indie rock, and even a b-boy competition. Several permanent venues become HQs for big-name comedy shows (2018’s lineup included Hannibal Burris and Michelle Wolfe). All are included with a single wristband.

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Win Butler (L) and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire perform on Downtown Stage during the 2018 Life Is Beautiful Festival on Sept. 23, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Life Is Beautiful).

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Some 200,000 square feet of grass sod is trucked in to cover up the cement so people can lie down on the ground. Dozens of food trucks are brought in. Chefs have their own kiosks.

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Visual artists from around the world are brought in to paint murals on the sides of buildings or to hold exhibits in smaller lots and other buildings within the fence. There are also sculptures and kinetic pieces. Everything offers unlimited opportunities for selfies and Instagram posts.

Infrastructure? No problem. There are probably more porta-potties per head than at any other festival — and that doesn’t include the permanent restrooms available in all the different businesses and venues.

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The only way all of this happens without suffocating red tape, permits, and permissions is if one guy basically owns all the property.

Before you ask, Life is Beautiful is a good 20-minute drive from The Strip and the site of last year’s Route 91 Festival, the site of that horrible massacre last Oct. 1. No one knows why Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd from a window at Mandalay Bay. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a single person in the history of the U.S.

You’d think that there would be a massive security presence, but it was all but invisible. There were the typical bag searches, metal detectors, and restrictions on the size of bags one could bring in, but that’s all one could see. However, a chatty cop mentioned that there were snipers on the surrounding buildings and loads of undercover armed private security in the crowd. And yes, those helicopters constantly flying above the site were there for surveillance.

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[Side note: On the Saturday night, as I stood in front of the main stage wondering if Foster the People would play Pumped Up Kicks, a disarmingly poppy song about a school shooter (they didn’t), Jason Aldean, the country singer who was onstage when the shooting began last October, was making an emotional return to Las Vegas with a performance at the iHeartRadio Festival at the T-Mobile Arena on the strip. The mood there was noticeably different than the carefree attitude at Life is Beautiful.]
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It was all a marvellous display of community spirit and cooperation. The businesses in and around the festival zone can’t say enough about Life is Beautiful and the revenue it brings in. Meanwhile, the city is grateful for the private investment. And Tony Hsieh? He has a great time at his 18-square-block block party. At the end of the night, he just goes back to his trailer.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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