Changes, ideas for downtown Las Vegas arise in R-J sponsored panel discussion

Don’t blink too long in downtown Las Vegas. You might crash into a beer garden.

Las Vegas’ formerly forlorn urban core is adding bars, restaurants, small businesses and even a resort at a dizzying pace, even for Southern Nevada’s boom-and-bust history.

The changes — and a few outlandish ideas — were the subject of a panel discussion on Monday that included former Mayor Oscar Goodman, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and Downtown Grand operator Seth Schorr.

Among the ideas was the notion that a beer garden in the underpass beneath the railroad tracks west of Main Street might make it more pleasant for walking. Currently it’s an area with wide, under-used streets and narrow, even lesser-used sidewalks.

The idea came up when Hsieh responded to a question about how to get people from the more populous east side of the tracks near the casinos and the Ogden residential tower, where Hsieh lives, to the west side of the tracks, where the city has backed development of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and other projects.

The Smith Center “is literally a mile from the Ogden but it feels much longer than that,” Hsieh said. “The answer needs to be more walkability.”

It’s hard to tell if the beer garden idea from Hsieh was a joke or the germ of an idea. Not only does the mercurial CEO have a deadpan delivery style, he’s also known for turning outrageous ideas into actual projects.

Look no further than the giant, flame-spewing praying mantis that Hsieh’s Downtown Project, a privately funded development company, installed near a Fremont Street sidewalk to attract foot traffic to its Container Park shopping center.

“Every block is now just something interesting that will get people to walk just one more block,” Hsieh said.

The event, which was held in a ballroom at the Plaza, was one in a series of Hashtags and Headlines events sponsored by the Review-Journal. About 300 people attended the discussion moderated by columnist Steve Sebelius.

In addition to kicking around ideas to make it easier to walk around downtown Las Vegas, the panelists talked about the rapid development that’s characterized the area that for decades was known as a place of desolation and despair.

The renaissance gathered steam toward the end of Goodman’s tenure, which lasted from 1999-2011.

Goodman attributed the surge in downtown development to publicly subsidized investments in everything from converting the former Fifth Street School into a cultural center to development of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka the Mob Museum, in the former federal courthouse on Stewart Avenue.

The loquacious former mayor said he did so despite criticism from people who questioned directing public money toward downtown redevelopment.

“The people didn’t know better; I knew better than the people when it came to this,” Goodman said.

Goodman’s efforts really started paying off in 2010 when Zappos decided it would strike a deal to lease the former City Hall building at Stewart Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard for a company headquarters.

In addition to the Zappos move, Hsieh also led development of the Downtown Project, a $350 million fund that invests in real estate, technology startups and community developments.

The Zappos move proved a boon for Schorr, too. His company, Fifth Street Gaming, manages the soon-to-open Downtown Grand in the former Lady Luck at Stewart Avenue and Third Street.

The resort, owned by CIM Group, has an urban approach to development that fits with views people like Goodman and Hsieh had for downtown.

Schorr contrasted the approach to that of a traditional hotel-casino on the Strip or on Fremont Street.

“The integrated resort casino basically encourages a guest to never leave the building,” Schorr said. “We decided it was time to change that model.”

The Downtown Grand has street level windows to the casino and a design that encourages visitors to explore the entire downtown.

Schorr said he’s hopeful all the businesses downtown can benefit from the new street level buzz downtown.

“As a city in terms of experience, we can actually compete with a big, Strip property,” he said.

Contact Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSpillman702 on Twitter.