Tony Hsieh's lasting Vegas legacy

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Tony Hsieh invested heavily in downtown Las Vegas' renaissance.
Tony Hsieh invested heavily in downtown Las Vegas' renaissance. Photo Credit: Jake Chessum / Trunk Archive
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

Wander just east of the tourist-oriented Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas and what you see can in large part be credited to the imagination of tech entrepreneur Tony Hsieh. It is a burgeoning mix of lively restaurants, bars and other hot spots for in-the-know locals and curious visitors to the city.

The vibrant Fremont East was a passion for Hsieh, 46, who died Nov. 27 of complications from injuries sustained in a house fire in Connecticut.

In addition to being the visionary behind downtown's renaissance, he will be remembered as the innovator behind Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer known for its nimble customer service, free shipping and returns as well as experiments in employee hiring and organization. For example, Zappos famously put new workers through an immersive four-week training program. About one week in, they were offered $2,000 (and salary for the amount of time worked) to quit. Hsieh said early in the program that only 2% or 3% took the offer.

The Harvard graduate joined the fledgling company as its CEO in 1999 and reportedly generated sales of $1.6 million in 2000. He sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009, but he remained with the company until his retirement in August.

Working to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, he pledged $350 million for redevelopment in 2013, the same year he moved Zappos' headquarters and its 1,500 employees from suburban Henderson, Nev., into the former Las Vegas City Hall building.

About $200 million was invested in real estate and development, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in technology and startups and $50 million in arts and culture, education and health care.

"Big Rig Jig" by Mike Ross stands in Fergusons Downtown, one of Tony Hsieh's projects.
"Big Rig Jig" by Mike Ross stands in Fergusons Downtown, one of Tony Hsieh's projects. Photo Credit: Amy Lee Hybarger

His investments included the Downtown Container Park, an outdoor shopping center built of stacked shipping containers and fronted by a 35-foot-tall, fire-breathing praying mantis. His company (initially the Downtown Project, now called DTP Cos.) owns and operates Gold Spike, a former hotel and casino touted as "downtown's premier smoke-free work-and-playground."

Among many other downtown enterprises, he was behind Inspire at the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, a three-story complex with convention/conference spaces, cocktail bars and outdoor patio areas and Fergusons Downtown, a blocklong community-oriented space springing up around a former nongaming motel.

He also invested in numerous restaurants (Eat, VegeNation) and businesses (Silver State Productions, a motion picture, music video and commercial company, and the Hydrant Club, a canine social club and training academy) as well as the Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival that debuted in 2013.

Hsieh, well known for his personal generosity, was also the author of the bestseller "Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passions and Purpose," describing his motto and the company's culture.

"Tony was a sweet, gentle soul [who] marched to the beat of a different drummer, thank goodness. I can't speak for anyone else, but that man changed my life in the most profound, positive way possible," said Natalie Young, owner/chef at Eat and Old Soul restaurants, on Twitter.

"Tony was of course a passionate and brilliant businessman who helped transform Las Vegas, but I personally will remember him as a close friend who gave me great advice and encouraged us all to take chances and challenge everything," wrote Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the Plaza Hotel & Casino.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who grew up in Las Vegas, were among the other luminaries who shared their grief on Twitter.

Hsieh "joined the list of iconic leaders whose adventurous nature and bold investments made us the fabulous place we have become," said an editorial in the Las Vegas Sun after his death.

While he had a mixed record of successes and failures, and Fremont East remains a work in progress, there's no doubt Hsieh helped employ people, construct lasting venues and instill a spirit for what he once called a "place of inspiration, creativity, discovery and upward mobility" in a long-stagnant area of Las Vegas.

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