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Viva Las Vegas? Tony Hsieh says yes. Wikipedia photo

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has a vision for downtown Las Vegas as the place that you’ll want to launch your next startup.

Currently spread across three buildings in Sin City, Hsieh’s Zappos is planning to consolidate inside the old Las Vegas City Hall. As a part of preparation for the move, Zappos, which is owned by, surveyed its employees to see what they wanted in a new campus.

That survey led to a couple important revelations.

“One was that we couldn’t actually physically possibly fit all of their requests into our campus,” said Hsieh, speaking today at the START conference in San Francisco.”There wasn’t enough room. But the other thing we realized is that all of the campuses I just mentioned, Apple, Nike, Google, were great for employees, but were actually kind of insulated, and didn’t really integrate or contribute to the community around them.”

So rather than try and turn the Zappos campus into a fortress of perks, Hsieh decided to look towards making its neighborhood better. He’s spearheaded a movement to turn downtown Las Vegas (which is very different from the strip) into the sort of place that would attract employees.

Tony Hsieh (Wikipedia Photo)
Tony Hsieh (Wikipedia Photo)

The Downtown Project, as it’s being called, is designed to turn Las Vegas into a place where professionals want to come and set up shop. To make that happen, Hsieh has three goals he’d like the project to fulfill.

“One is to help create a place to live, work (and) play within walking distance. Another is to make downtown Vegas the most community-focused large city in the world– in probably the place that you would least expect it –and the third is to make it the co-learning and co-working capital of the world,” he said.

To promote economic growth, the Downtown Project has designated $50 million for small businesses to come and set up shop in Las Vegas, as well as $50 million for VegasTechFund, a capital firm that aims to give entrepreneurs and tech startups money to move to Las Vegas.

Romotive, maker of the smartphone-powered mini robot device, moved to Vegas as part of the Downtown Project shortly after it graduated from the TechStars Seattle program. It has since raised $5 million from Sequoia Capital, Crunchfund, Ron Conway’s SV Angel. Order Mapper is another recent Vegas recruit from the Seattle area, a departure that kicked off an intense debate on GeekWire.

The Downtown Project is also working to sponsor cultural events, and is collaborating with Burning Man to bring large industrial art pieces to the region.

Amazon has not been present at public meetings about its new corporate campus in downtown Seattle.
Amazon has kept a low profile and not been present at public meetings about its new corporate campus in downtown Seattle.

All of this work is designed to create a city that encourages spontaneous interactions, which Hsieh says will drive further innovations.

We are certainly struck by the contrast between Hsieh’s civic engagement in Vegas, especially when compared to Amazon’s relatively low profile in its hometown of Seattle. (SeeEarly Amazon investor Nick Hanauer disappointed Amazon isn’t more civically engaged)

None of this is a sure thing, of course. Hsieh is counting on the systems he’s putting in place to boost the economy. But, if Hsieh’s development work doesn’t catch on, he’s going to be out a lot of money. If it works, however, Las Vegas may be the next destination for startups.

The competition is on. Could anyone in Seattle step up to meet that challenge?

This much we do know. There’s a tolerance for risk in Vegas, something that startup entrepreneurs certainly share.

This experiment will be interesting to watch.

Previously on GeekWire: Why this entrepreneur is moving to Vegas, and what it means for the Seattle scene

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