The Deep, Lasting Legacy of Tony Hsieh

Remembering the accomplishments of a Las Vegas legend on what would have been his 47th birthday

[Shown in featured image: Fergusons Downtown, a block rooted in community and dedicated to small local business, opened in December 2019. It is one of Hsieh’s most lauded investments.]

By Oliver Lovat

It was a shock to all to see the news alerts noting the tragic passing of Tony Hsieh on November 27.

Like many of the great Las Vegas innovators, his primary business interests were not initiated in the gaming industry but left an indelible mark on the city’s future.

The great real estate developers in Las Vegas are marked by building from the ground up. Irwin Molasky physically developed the necessary community infrastructure that Las Vegas rests on today. Kirk Kerkorian built resorts, carving monoliths from the caliche. Hank Greenspun led the drive to master-planned suburban communities which have been the key feature of Las Vegas’ urban growth. Steve Wynn immersed psychology, art and design into a traditionally functional discipline. Unlike them all, Tony Hsieh reinvented urban living in Las Vegas with a uniquely innovative redevelopment strategy.

Downtown’s New Deal

For decades community leaders, investors and operators had seen something in Downtown Las Vegas, but efforts to reinvent Las Vegas has been mixed. As recently as 2008, Downtown was seen as a memorial to past glories and a niche attraction for low rollers and gaming buffs. Attempts to stimulate tourism led from City Hall had failed.

The Lady Luck closed in 2006 and many of the casinos required long overdue investment. 

Within short order, a collection of investors, visionaries and property owners were to have their mark in different ways; the Epstein family sought to find new uses of derelict buildings, The Stevens brothers invested in The Golden Gate, led a full-scale redevelopment and rebranding of Fitzgerald’s to become The D and with Jonathan Jossel managing operations for Tamares, seeking ways to manage their significant real estate portfolio.

Then in 2011 Tony Hsieh, decided to relocate his business to Downtown Las Vegas, creating the Downtown Project, investing $200 million in property, $50 million in start-ups, $50 million in education programs and $50 million in hi-tech businesses. This was a new type of urban development, investing in the community to drive real estate values. Over time, Hsieh increased residential density in a once transient community and created an environment of co-working, cross-pollination of ideas and innovation with the vision of a model micro-society where work, life and play were all integrated. Zappos literally took over City Hall, moving their business into their building.

Life in the Fast Lane

The Downtown Project was not perfect, even Tony would admit that mistakes were made, and there were detractors, however it gave Las Vegas something that it had not had before; an accelerated bottom-up regeneration project with a true urban community.

Visitation to Downtown increased, further investment followed including a soccer team, hotel reinvestment and finally, Circa, Downtown’s newest icon. 

Even for those that did not live in the city of Las Vegas, Downtown became a center for both local and tourist communities to meet, not under the auspices of a corporate casino. Street festivals, featuring art, food and music are regular events. Businesses have further invested into the area and the biggest problem, the lack of affordable housing, has been partly rectified. Real estate values have soared.

His Legacy is in the Books

Tony Hsieh may have left Las Vegas and has now left this world; his business legacy is secure. His book, Delivering Happiness, is compulsory reading for all students of business in the new millennium and he forged the way in thought leadership for a generation. 

While many others in business mourn his passing, we in Las Vegas feel his loss particularly. Tony seemed like a man in a hurry, with a passion to get things done. Visionary developers, like Molasky, Kerkorian, Greenspun and Wynn bequeath an infrastructure that is used for decades after they have moved on. Tony Hsieh has done that for Downtown Las Vegas.

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