Taking advantage of a clear spring day in Las Vegas, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid on Tuesday toured downtown with Tony Hsieh, the chief executive officer of Zappos, the online shoe seller heavily involved in downtown redevelopment.
The hour-long tour ended at Container Park, a complex of retrofitted shipping containers that houses bars, stores, restaurants and other small businesses as well as a spiral slide and playground for children. Reid and Hsieh chatted with business owners and parents who brought kids to the family-friendly complex and the senator bought an iced drink.
Reid, D-Nev., said downtown Las Vegas is being transformed thanks to Hsieh, who has invested $350 million for the Downtown Project, which is focused on cleaning up the Fremont Street area and bringing in new, innovative businesses. So far, the initiative has created 533 jobs and led to the creation of the Container Park.
“Most people don’t realize what it used to be,” Reid said of the downtown area, which was blighted, dangerous and populated by the wandering homeless. “We saw it go downhill. It was heartbreaking.”
Reid said he can’t wait to bring his wife, Landra, to the Container Park and he said people need to see it to believe how much the business park has changed downtown Las Vegas.
“This is remarkable — the genius of the people who are doing this,” Reid said at a news conference with Hsieh. “One person can make a difference and we know what Tony Hsieh has done. … Now people come here to play … because this is the place.”
Reid also credited former Mayor Oscar Goodman and his wife, the current Mayor Carolyn Goodman, for supporting Hsieh and the Downtown Project. Zappos itself moved its headquarters downtown into the former city hall.
Asked if there was any federal government support for Hsieh’s Downtown Project, Reid said he would back such help, but the private enterprise project hasn’t needed any so far — and may not.
“I hope there’s a lot of federal help that’s available,” Reid said. “At this point it’s not needed. … We’re looking at what America is about: free enterprise.”
Hsieh said the Container Park recently had its 500,000th visitor, including families and their children.
“It’s great seeing additional people coming downtown,” said Hsieh, who wore a company T-shirt and jeans on the tour.
Asked what’s next, he listed several businesses planning to open downtown, including a hotel, a donut shop, a flower shop and some high-tech businesses.
“It feels like every weekend there’s a new grand opening,” Hsieh said.
Reid noted that a health insurance cooperative had opened in downtown Las Vegas as well, offering policies under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He said it was the first such cooperative in the nation.
“It is really remarkable what he’s doing,” Reid said of the physician owner, whom he met a couple of years ago. “It is a true success story.”
During the tour, Reid and Hsieh visited several businesses located on the three floors of the Container Park. They also visited the Inspire Theater, East Fremont Street and the Learning Village.
Reid chatted up Ernie Loya, manager of Big Ern’s BBQ restaurant in the Container Park. Loya, a former Zappos employee, started his food business from a makeshift food truck downtown, but now sells his sandwiches, pulled pork, smoked brisket, ribs and chicken with his special barbecue sauce from an established location with lots of foot traffic.
After tasting Loya’s sauce, “Tony emailed me and asked me if I wanted to open a business here and I said ‘yes,’” said Loya, a big and tall man who looked to weigh about 350 pounds. Asked how much he tipped the scales, Loya pointed to the restaurant’s name — Big Ern’s BBQ — and laughed, saying, “It’s all in the sign.”
It was apparent during Reid’s walkabout that the Senate majority leader is both loved and loathed in Nevada.
At one point downtown, a passerby from his vehicle shouted “a———!” at Reid. Inside the Container Park, however, a man yelled out to Reid, “Hey, you’re the best, Harry!”
Reid stopped to talk to Breanna Cape, a mother of two, ages 8 and 2, from Henderson. She said it was her first time visiting the Container Park, where her older child was using the playground as she watched from a table.
“It’s pretty cool. The kids like it,” Cape said.
Asked how she felt about Reid, she hesitated, then said, “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Asked whether she voted for his re-election in 2010, Cape chuckled and said, “I don’t remember. I have mom’s brain.”
Before the tour, Reid sat for an interview at the Mob Museum, telling about his time as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1977 to 1981 as he went after the mob, which still controlled some casinos.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.