It’s not about one dude: my interview on downtown revitalization for Nevada Public Radio

Last week, when  I was in Las Vegas to mentor at the South By Southwest Venture to Venture (SXSWv2v) conference, I was invited to speak on Nevada Public Radio’s news show, State of Nevada, about community revitalization and recent business closings in Downtown Las Vegas. I’ve been studying the Downtown Project and Las Vegas pretty closely over the past couple of years, and as I’ve written about here and elsewhere, I think they represent a new and potentially beneficial approach to the age-old questions of how to revitalize an older city commercial district.

But the Downtown Project has gotten some rather unflattering press, I think in part because of early lack of transparency and a little naivete, but mostly because the people who have been writing about them appear to have very little understanding of what it takes to revitalize a city –  what I referred to in another piece as “the long hard slog of community revitalization

As you’ll see and hear in the introduction to the show, the “look it’s all failing and it’s that guy’s fault” angle was pretty pronounced — I was actually a little surprised at how sharply the claws came out from the start (I know, if it bleeds it leads — I get that. But this is public radio!)

So by the time the host brought me into the conversation, I had concluded that it was time to insist on a more reasonable narrative — one that wasn’t about One Guy and a few short term issues, and more about the long view, placing their city in a national context, and building a realistic perspective on the whole range of people who are investing in this city.

I also made some observations about a few of the inherent advantages that I think Las Vegas has in the fight for revitalization – and these come in part from a culure of optimism, of willingness to try something new, that I don’t always see in cities that are trying to revitalize themselves. I haven’t heard as much “that won’t work – we tried it before” as in many places – in part because they haven’t developed that legacy of failed attempts yet. Some of those things I said might look a little suck-up-y in print, but I meant them.

One thing that I am starting to think about, though, is this: I’m familiar with one-industry towns — and interestingly, one of the other speakers seemed to think that this was unique to Las Vegas, and didn’t seem to recall that Pittsburgh and Detroit and many of the other cities we had been discussing had been one-industry towns for a very long time.  The challenge that urban observers often note in places like that is that the big industry presence seems to have a negative impact on entrepreneurial culture – people who might be inclined to be entrepreneurial don’t know anyone else who owns a business, they’re not encouraged to see that as an option, and they haven’t learned from their surroundings the basics of how to make that work.

Like I said, Las Vegas doesn’t seem to have as much of the fatalism that you see in the eastern cities that I have grown up with.  But I’m wondering if there might be some lack of entrepreneurial how-to context – not only among potential business owners, but among observers who seem to think that a big pile of money should solve everything, and solve it overnight.  And who view six businesses closing (without looking at the number of openings, which has been huge) as a sign of the End Times.

three businesses
Three brand new businesses in rehabbed buildings. None of which were mentioned in the “six businesses have closed!!” setup. My photo, July 20.

You can listen to the interview here, either streaming or download.  About the first 20 minutes are the other three panelists (a business reporter, a real estate guy and a councilman) having an inside ball conversation. If you deal with reporters, or councilmen, or real estate guys in your town, this part will probably be same tune, different words for you.  Three new businesses in Downtown Las Vegas. As in, brand new. None of which were mentioned in the broadcast. My photo.

But I think you’ll find the way the conversation changed after I came in interesting. I don’t know why this happened, but after I reframed the issues and kind of forced a broadening of the perspective, the other speakers largely dropped the accusations and began to talk about the deeper important issues – even though the periodic reminders of the topic had what seemed by now to be a jarringly snarky tone.

And I think that’s a powerful lesson  for all of us: sometimes a point-by-point rebuttal of the naysayers isn’t what’s really needed.  What’s needed, both for a specific conversation and for the community, is to be able to pull back and see the big picture of community revitalization.  If we could do that effectively, we could probably help ourselves-and our communities – a great deal.

I hope you enjoy the listen.  If you need help changing the conversation in your community, please do let me know.

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