Zappos Builds A Desert Oasis

Credit unions have much to learn from the online retail giant that is building an entire community around its headquarters in downtown Las Vegas.

As the epitome of a tourism-based economy, Las Vegas is not typically known as a local’s town. Mega hotel-casinos such as The Bellagio, The Wynn, and Caesars Palace are designed to indulge the wishes and whims of out-of-towners, not serve as aneconomic or cultural backbone for the community.

Tony Hsieh CEO of the online shoe and clothing company sees what exists outside the glitter, glitz, and neon of the Las Vegas Strip and aims to bring a sense of community back to the city. In the fall of 2013, Zappos will officiallymove its headquarters from Henderson, NV, to the old City Hall in downtown Las Vegas. The move brings with it 1,300 gainfully employed residents and a wealth of new career opportunities for the region’s many unemployed and underemployed individuals.

Hsieh describes his vision for the old downtown region as the anti-strip. By creating an alternative energetic environment for both work and play in Las Vegas, Hsieh intends to boost Zappos’ own operation plus the surrounding city to new heights.

Credit Union Lesson: Expansion strategies aren’t just about what is, but about what could be. Focusing on economically challenged or up-and-coming areas for expansion yields not only a plethora of affordable retail space but also the opportunity to transform people’s lives.

Hsieh is not alone in his efforts. Zappos is just one of many leaders involved in the Downtown Project redevelopment group. With the self-stated goal of inspiring and empowering people to follow their passions to create a vibrant, connected, urbancore, this group is working to transform downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world.

The Downtown Project has purchased dozens of acres over several blocks east of Las Vegas Boulevard. And through its collaboration with the Project, Zappos is building a hybrid between a city and a company headquarters.

The Plan
The Downtown Project has taken several steps in its urban journey:

  1. Create physical spaces that reflect the community’s values.

    Zappos’ corporate culture is about encouraging spontaneous interactions. Employees enjoy their environment, their coworkers, and their company, so the revitalizeddowntown will have cafes, parks, and bars to support a social environment along with a productive work/life balance. The Downtown Project is investing in small business startups and technology companies that reflect the desires of the new employeesflocking to the area. Environmental sustainability, local dining, and cooperative transportation alternatives are especially important for this new crop of residents.

Credit Union Lesson: No one knows the values of their employees and membership better than a cooperative, but are you sharing those insights with the community at large? Whether it is access to bike paths and parks, green certified buildings, or healthcare facilities, find what matters in your community and communicate those needs to developers, investors, local government, and other potential stakeholders.

2. Create residential density greater than 100 people per acre.

Real estate developers are creating middle class housing, the majority of which will be within walking distance of the new Zappos headquarters,for Zappos employees and other new residents.

When people live closely with one another, the opportunities to interact serendipitously increase, which increases the sharing of knowledge and ideas and improves productivity,the group says.

Credit Union Lesson: Apply the physical proximity strategy to the credit union workplace. Wise cooperatives invest in both space and opportunities for employees and the community to interact with, and learn from, each other.

3. Add ground-level activities, spaces, and businesses.

People must want to live in the area under development, and locational benefits to a business aren’t enough to draw a crowd. Zappos employeeslive in the suburbs and commute into work, so just moving the headquarters downtown isn’t enough to drive a significant economic turnaround.

To address this, the Downtown Project plans to create ground-level gathering places suchas cafes, parks, bars, interesting small businesses, and public spaces to increase economic output and ramp up the residential appeal of the location.

4. Make it easy for businesses to move in.

This goal requires more than just throwing money at a project it also requires creativity. As is typical in many city revitalizations,downtown Las Vegas lacks an abundance of old buildings to renovate or repurpose.

As an alternative, the Downtown Project is turning shipping containers into remodeled workspaces for entrepreneurs. And it is planning to create an entireretail facility from these units, which it will call Shipping Container Park. The units allow businesses to move in quickly and inexpensively and offer a quirky, hip vibe that traditional retail locations can’t offer.

Credit Union Lesson: Cooperatives already use a wealth of alternative workspaces from in-store and in-school branches to video teller-equipped alcoves that stay open far beyond branch hours. In urban areas, it is important to think creatively about how to best use all available resources. From temporary pop-up shops to rolling branches that operate out of modified RVs, think outside traditional brick-and-mortar.

Redevelopment Ain’t Cheap
The Downtown Project intends to complete the downtown revitalization process in less than five years. But accomplishing so much, so quickly requires a serious financial investment.

Downtown Project businesses have invested roughly $350 million in the region, dedicating $50 million to small businesses; $50 million to tech startups; $50 million to education, the arts, and culture; and $200 million to real estate.

The small business fund aims to invest in 60 promising businesses by the end of 2013. According to an article, the Project will help fund 100 to 200 tech startups, investing $50,000 to $500,000 in each and offering professional mentoringand the opportunity to participate in expansion workshops. The fund will evaluate companies on the strength of their business platform as well as on their community focus.

Credit Union Lesson: Many small changes are as effective as one big one. Turning around an entire community requires a serious investment, but credit unions can start by going street by street, school by school, and neighborhood by neighborhood. When big change is warranted, look to the power of the cooperative system and enlist the financial help of other players to create an impact bigger than yourself.

Zappos’ community revitalization strategy is ambitious. And although there are limits to what one company can do, Zappos has received a lot of media attention, which expands awareness and puts pressure on other businesses to step up for a worthycause. What kind of implications does Zappos’ best practices have for credit unions’ community investments? With the right amount of creative thinking and well-placed dedication, the industry might soon be writing a new chapter in thecooperative success story.

March 10, 2014

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