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EDITORIAL: Remembering Tony Hsieh, visionary businessman

Updated November 30, 2020 - 9:03 pm

Iconic, larger-than-life figures have built and defined Las Vegas for decades. Introverted and unassuming, Tony Hsieh seemed an unlikely candidate to join that pantheon.

The former Zappos CEO did it anyway. Mr. Hsieh, 46, died over Thanksgiving weekend, the result of injuries suffered in a Connecticut house fire.

Mr. Hsieh was a wildly successful businessman. In his 20s, Microsoft bought his online marketing company for $265 million in stock. He soon invested in the business that became Zappos. In 2004, Zappos moved from San Francisco to Henderson. Amazon bought the company in 2009 for $1.2 billion, but he stayed on as CEO until retiring in August.

In the midst of this, Mr. Hsieh took an interest in revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. In 2012, he poured $350 million into the city, buying up properties and investing in businesses. He helped create the Downtown Container Park and Fremont9 apartment complex. In 2013, he moved Zappos into the old Las Vegas City Hall, providing an influx of people and energy.

Many people will remember Mr. Hsieh fondly for all he did to help them succeed. One of them is Donald Lemperle, owner of Vege­Nation. He called Mr. Hsieh “a chef’s dream,” because “he let me follow exactly what I wanted to do and was able to fund me.”

This is worth remembering. Mr. Hsieh’s vision, commitment and money transformed Downtown Las Vegas. It wasn’t a government program or a public official prattling on about urban renewal. It was an entrepreneur who empowered and spurred other entrepreneurs. He saw an opportunity to do something that could outlast himself, risked his own money and succeeded. The best thing that Las Vegas city officials did was to recognize Mr. Hsieh’s value and to let him do his own thing. Bureaucratic inertia and restrictions are far too common in areas that need fresh ideas and private investment.

Too many city planners envision themselves using tax money to do what Mr. Hsieh did successfully. They rarely succeed — few can. This is why Mr. Hsieh will be remembered so fondly.

“Tony meant so much to Las Vegas, always dreaming, working to inspire and leading others to create a new vision for tomorrow,” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said.

Gov. Steve Sisolak praised him for the “pivotal role” he played in transforming downtown Las Vegas. On Saturday night, the Fremont Street Experience’s Viva Vision video canopy honored Mr. Hsieh with a five-minute tribute on the big screen. Las Vegas is better for having encountered Mr. Hsieh. It is indeed too bad, as Circa owner Derek Stevens put it, that “we never got to see Act 2.”

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