I’ve maintained a close relationship with Las Vegas since marrying my college sweetheart 15 years ago at the Las Vegas Country Club. We lived in Las Vegas for two years early on but have since kept an arms distance while building a career and enjoying the culture of New York and Los Angeles. My wife Laura has deep roots in Vegas as her maternal grandparents moved to the city in the 30′s when the population was roughly 8,000. Like any other new city, Las Vegas was ripe for entrepreneurs who had the vision to map out the future of the community and her grandparents were “all-in”.
This post started as a follow-up to our visit of the Downtown Project, but the more I thought of the future of downtown Las Vegas, the more I thought of Laura’s family and how they were part of something exciting as exciting as creating the city of Las Vegas from the ground up.
Las Vegas Pioneers
Maxwell Kelch, Laura’s grandfather, was a man of many interests who worked as a recording engineer for the likes of Bing Crosby but also wrote a book about celestial navigation. After moving to Las Vegas, Maxwell served as an early president of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and with his wife Laura Belle they started Las Vegas’ first radio station called KENO. While president of the Chamber of Commerce, Maxwell started a campaign called “Live Wire” which was the first organized effort to market Las Vegas as a product and transform Las Vegas into a global destination. Maxwell was also the voice of Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy waving his hat outside the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street who used to say “Howdy Podner” to passerbys. Maxwell never invested in gaming or liquor as a way to build the city, much like his successors who are currently reshaping downtown.
Laura Belle Kelch also left her mark on the city of Las Vegas as the founder of the chapter of Las Vegas Boy Scouts and charter member of the Las Vegas Art League which is now the Las Vegas Art Museum and one of the first female members of the Rotary Club. After launching their radio station, Laura Belle hosted a show called “Listen Ladies” that shared tips on gardening and homemaking as support to the war efforts from home. Laura Belle and her daughter Marilyn (Laura’s mom) recall riding their horses around the city and even tying them up on Fremont street as they went shopping. Marilyn has made horses a lifelong passion as she moved from a prominent career in Nevada politics to the proprieter and “Boss Lady” of Sandy Valley Ranch.
Laura’s paternal grandparents also arrived to Las Vegas in the 30′s and her grandfather Vivian Gubler served as district attorney and represented the Atomic Energy Commission and various other Nevada corporations. Laura’s father John Gubler continued the family tradition of practicing law and up until last year had been doing so in a building at the corner of Bridger and 1st St. for almost 38 years. Vivian’s wife Rita Gubler (Laura’s grandmother) founded the Junior League of Las Vegas and also found time to open the first second-hand store in Las Vegas called “The Thrift Shop” while raising four boys.
From Enigma Cafe to The Beat
Since I’ve known downtown Las Vegas, it was always a wasteland to me. The area known as the “naked city” has Thai BBQ, but in the 90′s there was a gem of a spot that served as a cultural conclave for artists, poets, musicians and other creative thinkers who were turned off and away by the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Enigma Cafe was founded in 1993 by Julie Brewer who was an original believer in downtown Las Vegas and helped start the First Friday Arts Festival. In 1996 she sold Enigma to Lenadams Dorris who was also interested in fostering a community by offering Enigma Cafe as a safe and encouraging place for the Las Vegas community to feel at home.
Entering Enigma Cafe felt like walking into someone’s home as you were instantly surrounded by manicured foliage and artistic outdoor furniture. Vines climbed walls and trellis’ throughout the cafe and a shaded patio offered respite from the intense Vegas heat. I’ve come to learn that Lenadams worked in a plant nursery for many years so the greenery all made sense. Laura and my brother absolutely loved Cafe Enigma and to them Las Vegas hasn’t been the same since Enigma closed a few years back, but as Las Vegas grows, so does a need for great coffee and conversation.
Enter The Beat coffeehouse which is leading the way for independent coffeehouses in the valley but more importantly is carrying on the tradition as Enigma Cafe did as a meeting place for creative types who aspire for more than Las Vegas has to offer. Lenadams Dorris and the late Julie Brewer may have been 20 years too early but their legacy lives on as First Friday and Downtown Las Vegas enter a new era.
Tony Hsieh, Zappos and Downtown Las Vegas
Many of us have read Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. If you haven’t I strongly recommend it as a story of a driven man, a startup and the path to startup success. Tony continues to walk the talk as he has done so many years with Zappos and instead of just taking the Amazon money and running, he continues to innovate at Zappos and as part of their expansion they will be moving into the vacate city hall building in downtown Las Vegas.
Realizing that they were outgrowing their corporate headquarters in Henderson, NV, Tony and his team checked out various corporate campus like environments such as Google, Nike and others. These mini-cities had everything that employees needed to sustain their focus and drive but he noticed they were cut-off and operated like fiefdoms. This did not fit with the Zappos culture. “Culture” is a word you hear Zappos employees speak of A LOT and it’s a driving force to what motivates them and has helped build such a rabid fanbase.
The vacate Las Vegas city hall building was up for sale and was going cheap. It’s a unique looking building and cited as 1960′s modern architecture although it was built in 1973. It will provide more than enough space for the 1,200 and counting employees but Tony realized it’s location was lacking. In fact downtown Las Vegas was lacking almost everything that most people would need if they were going to live nearby and people living at a ratio of 100 per acre is the ideal ratio that Tony feels is necessary for the types of serendipitous “collisions” that Tony and Zappos thrive on.
This New York Times article goes into much greater detail on the Downtown Project including the $350 million fund that Tony and a few other investors have pooled to provide downtown Las Vegas with everything a true community needs including, arts, education, entertainment and work. A first step that connects the past with the present was purchasing First Friday which provides a great foundation and legitimacy from which to continue to launch more art and music such as the Life is Beautiful Festival.
The Ogden and Fremont East
We’ve been following the progress of downtown Las Vegas from afar but it wasn’t until our friend Laura Herbert (who works with the Downtown Project), who is one of the most creative, intelligent and inspiring people we know, suggested we take an official visit to see what the buzz was all about. Laura described downtown Las Vegas as a Disneyland for hard-working entrepreneurs and we were flattered that she thought to recommend us to her colleagues.
Our visits to Las Vegas always revolve around staying at one of the parents houses which is great but we’d never done a proper Las Vegas vacation together so we were excited about the prospect of staying in a high rise downtown and being within walking distance of everything we’d want to check out for a couple days.
During our time in New York we lived in a couple different high-rise doorman buildings, so the Ogden brought back memories of taking the dog up and down for walks and being in close proximity to our neighbors. But unlike New York where people typically keep to themselves, every person we saw in the elevator gave us a nice hello and reached out to play with our dog or make faces at our baby. Not everyone who lives in the Ogden is involved with the Downtown Project and it was a great barometer to the attitudes of locals in that building and we left with a positive vibe.
Our room had a great balcony that faced South so we had a full and magnificent view of the strip, but the drawback facing that direction was Fremont street. We could hear the concerts from Beauty Bar and the Fremont Street experience and although it eventually faded into background noise we were there on the night of the Vegas Streats festival but fortunately we had ear plugs and our son is a sound sleeper.
Before and during our visit we chatted with Trish Buck who runs the family programs as part of the Downtown Project. She and her husband Patrick, live in the Ogden with their two kids who are growing up with the El Cortez just outside their window (does it get anymore Vegas than that?). Trish was hosting family game night while we visited and it was just a couple blocks from the Ogden. They had a ton of Imagination Playground equipment setup which we’ve always loved for open-ended play and our son Hunter was in heaven. In addition they had table games for the older kids and a social paintbrush station was setup. Trish was an extremely gracious host and the perfect person to introduce the Downtown Project to families.
Our official tour of Downtown Las Vegas began with Krissee who greeted us with a big smile and had the same infectious energy that everyone we had met who was involved in DTLV project had. She started with a tour of Tony Hsieh’s apartment which has become the unofficial headquarters of Downtown Project.
The blueprints for buildings, container parks and schools were pinned to the walls and a message board with hundreds of Post-Its contained wishes from residents who were asked what they’d like to see come to fruition downtown. It wasn’t all work as evident of the well-stocked bar, black light room and jungle room that we could only imagine lends itself to some amazing parties.
Krissee then walked us over to the Emergency Arts building that I mentioned before has become a cultural hub for the Downtown Project and in addition to housing The Beat coffeehouse there are at least 35 art galleries located on the first and second floor. We peeked into USR/LIB which is the co-working tech space located on the second floor and where many of the numerous tech meetups take place.
Our son facilitated a chance encounter with the owner of the gallery TastySpace, Dana Satterwhite and his wife Kristen. Two artistic professionals who are part of the driving force behind the success of downtown Las Vegas. We loved that they were not connected to Downtown Project but as artists and musicians they were benefitting from the direction the city was going.
While walking around downtown we had a longtime local friend spot us and we were happy to have such a chance encounter and know this would never happen if we lived in Summerlin and were walking around Boca Park.
Our final stop was the hackerspace, Syn Shop. Although they just recently opened their doors they had quite the hardware setup with a Replicator 2 Makerbot, laser cutter, industrial size ShopBot and plenty of power tools. We had an informal chat with their board of directors who had recently wrapped a Mini-Maker Faire and had big plans for this space.
The one spot we didn’t get to was Stitch Factory which is a co-working space for designers to workout the patterns of their dreams and collaborate and learn more about the fashion industry. Hello Wifebeader!
I’m kind of a nerd/meathead but I trust the creative barometer of my wife Laura Dahl and her brother Matthew Gray Gubler, two formative and driven Las Vegas natives who made their mark elsewhere but are now invigorated by everything that is happening downtown.
Regardless of our involvement with Downtown Project, we are both excited about the possibilities set forth and at the very least they will have created an urban core of art, culture and business where none existed and at the most, downtown will continue to influence thousands of residents and non-residents to re-examine what they think Las Vegas is and possibly consider investing their time and money into the city that they now feel can support their creative ventures.
Our hope is that Downtown Project continues to focus on building an amazing community but also recognizing and enfolding the people of the community that already exists, which is the foundation that Las Vegas was built on.