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The Downtown Las Vegas Project is a Bet Worth Making

A group of entrepreneurs with $350 million funding from investors have been building a new economy in downtown Las Vegas.  The Vegas Tech Fund backs startups that set up shop in the city, converting the shabby downtown area’s buildings and other infrastructure that into a new look and feel while decentralizing from the technology core of Silicon Valley.  

NPR calls the effort “part urban revitalization, part social experiment.”  The idea is to get more people living, playing and working in this forgotten part of Vegas.

There are 60 tech startups in the area, accounting for about 800 jobs.  Some companies are the result of education and health initiatives while others are places where the employees and their families can enjoy life outside of work, from upscale shops to doggy parks.

Downtown Container Park, an open-air shopping and entertainment center, includes 39 boutique retail shops, restaurants and bars built from 43 repurposed shipping containers and 41 locally manufactured Xtreme cubes.  The centerpiece is a fire-breathing, 35-foot-tall praying mantis sculpture.  There is a stage for presentations and live music performances and an interactive play area featuring a 33-foot-tall slide, NEOS play system and oversized foam building blocks.  

Still, the Vegas project could be overly optimistic in its scope.  Throwing money at the problem may not solve it, and people in Vegas think growth is unlimited.  After three years, the project is not going as quickly as investors expected, especially because high-tech projects move so quickly and because urban development is new to the people in charge.  People wonder whether the attempt to revitalize the urban core of Las Vegas is temporary or permanent.

Will Santa Ana have the same issues?  The organic nature of its development could make a difference in the way the changes are perceived.

For the last five years, downtown Santa Ana’s Latino bakeries, bridal shops and discounted clothing stores have given way to trendy eateries, funky hat shops, and nightlife activities.  When sales and rental income started to decline in the Fiesta Marketplace, possibly because corporate retail chain stores were luring Latino shoppers away from traditional Mexican shops and because credit restrictions on immigrants loosened up, Mexican shops closed down, and rents went up.  Fourth Street developed into trendy restaurants and hip stores.

In November, the city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance that allows developers to convert historic commercial buildings into residential spaces with certain waivers on parking requirements and other standards.  The city has plans to turn a parking garage it owns at Third Street and Broadway into some type of mixed-use development project.  There are efforts to provide healthy foods, activities and personal care products for nearby residents and concerns about whether residents in the area can buy everyday items like socks, food, and other health products.

Still, there is a lot of debate over what Santa Ana is becoming and what it should be.  Can it be both trendy and affordable?  Can it be both ethnic and hip?  Other cities have done it.  At this point, we can bet on both Las Vegas and Santa Ana.