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Friday Night’s Light: Joey Vanas and the future of the city’s biggest art event

<p>Joey Vanas. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Joey Vanas. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

<p>Joey Vanas. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Joey Vanas. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

There’s a reason the greatest men in history weren’t known for their piloting of golf carts. It’s hard to exude Napoleonic or even Reaganomic leadership when your war steed is an E-Z Go RXV. Alive today, Alexander the Great would probably drive a Ford Explorer or some bitchin’ old Chevy. But puttering around Casino Center, wearing a floppy white gardening hat and mismatching socks, Joey Vanas is leading a battalion of smiling event staffers to the July First Friday. And he’ll probably lead them to loads more after that.

A year before you started reading this story, Tony Hsieh sat Joey down and asked him to run an event that would make absolutely no money and stay in the red longer than you’d expect would be acceptable for someone with “owns Zappos.com” and “is a millionaire” on his resume. And that’s exactly what Joey told him. “It’s a financial disaster with no business model whatsoever,” Joey said. “It’s going to cost us more money and there’s no revenue streams to speak of to keep up with that.” Tony asked again. Two weeks went by.

During that time, Joey went to his first Burning Man. “They create the most incredible art and most incredible city on Earth for one week, then completely break it down, and it disappears without a trace,” he said. “I had this vision of capturing some of that magic and ethos and bringing it downtown.” When he came back from Black Rock Desert, Joey, Andrew Donner of Resort Gaming Group, and Zappos crew Hsieh, Steve Hill and Fred Mossler bought the First Friday trademark from Whirlygig Inc.

The day of the July 2012 First Friday, there’s a 34-foot Airstream production trailer sitting on Casino Center and Colorado. Shortly after I arrive in front of it, Joey pulls up on that golf cart. He’s tall. Not NBA championship ring tall, but he ducks getting into the trailer more than anyone else. His hair is buzzed and his smile is enormous. He wears cargo shorts, a T-shirt and beat-up sneakers. He says it’s not because of the weather. This is just his wardrobe — he hates suits. And he’s quiet. Not just for someone who runs a big community-building event; he’d be quiet for a fourth-grader. More than once over the next month, I’ll have to push my recorder closer to him. His eyes don’t widen when he talks about something passionately, which is still easily mistaken for nonchalance. Nestled in the guts of the Airstream are Joey’s model/associate girlfriend, Joey’s bookkeeping sister and a PBS film crew, which just got back from a golf cart tour of the blocks commandeered by First Friday. They try to cool off in the corner. Joey taps along to music on his phone. Everyone but Joey’s girlfriend has sweat stains. The air-conditioning hasn’t kicked on yet. It’s 106 degrees in that Airstream. This is the first time they’ve had a trailer to run festival operations.

Simultaneously coming to the end of a bread stick, an e-mail and a Black Keys song, Joey pops up and back into his golf cart. It’s time to make sure all the vendors have ice. And the artists have signed in. And the Freedom Wall is ready. Whizzing around the grounds, Joey stops at every booth. He greets the food and drink vendors by their first names. He makes sure the 40-foot Freedom Wall has all the art supplies available for visitors to make their own mark, whether it be drawings, quotes, the names of family members who died in wars. He gabs in that jovial but hushed voice with artists who’ve signed in. Maybe one third are running late. Which is normal.

Two hours after Joey’s girlfriend isn’t sweating in the trailer, the blocks surrounding Casino Center will fill with thousands of people. At least 50 art vendors will occupy white tents up and down the streets. The brick-and-mortar galleries will be lit up and ready to hawk their wares, extending up the block all the way to the Arts Factory. People will do yoga on astroturf. Third Street will become a nearly impregnable, hip-to-hip throng of everything from Summerlin strollers to Northtown sneakers, despite this being the widest street and thus the reason it’s also the food-truck food court. Music will play on outdoor stages on blocked-off streets from the district to East Fremont. The kid zone will feature fledgling rock stars from the School of Rock. The Freedom Wall will have around a thousand unique signatures. And it will be one of the best First Fridays Joey has seen.

“They’re definitely creating more of a flow and engagement; they’re using the space better,” says Marian Goodell, director of communications for Burning Man and a pre- and post-ownership change First Friday attendee. “Community group activities are extremely Burning Man-like, and I’m starting to see bits of that coming along.”

Since October of last year, any decision made to adjust or improve the First Friday organism has been made by Joey. When pressed, he rifles off at least a three-breath list of issues. When we speak on July 15, he’s trying to find a mass-quantity sand vendor and neighborhood land owners who will let him build a beach on their lot for August. He’s constantly reworking the parking setup, because it’s constantly terrible. He talks about it for five minutes, not unlike describing the most boring Sim City game ever. Two weeks after that, he’ll decide he never wants to talk about parking again. There are more important things to think about than how to fit the more stubborn visitors into the blocks surrounding Casino Center. His day-to-day involves sponsor meetings, accruing new plots of land, handling the website. Talking to people like me so people like you experience his efforts. But on a macro level, Joey’s trying to preserve First Friday as a lucrative evening for the downtown creative class — and to make it stand as carbohydrates for a city accused of cultural emaciation. “A lot of businesses have been depending on this event for nine years to keep the lights on,” he says. “Some of these people tell us they make as much that day as they do all month.”

In the 10 years before buying into First Friday, Joey’s experience wasn’t necessarily what you’d expect. He wasn’t a city planner. He wasn’t known for his artsy block-party planning. He worked for a marketing firm. He worked in nightclubs. He dated George Clooney’s ex girlfriend (if you subscribe to that kind of Hollywood hoopla). But the actual title on a business card was irrelevant. His business was connecting with people. “I think I’ve had a very good concept of that from a young age,” he says. “When I was at the marketing company in Miami, a lot of it was based around event activations and entertainment stuff. That just means ‘what people like.’ You tailor it and make it memorable, whether it’s a product or a festival. It’s about how you connect that brand to them in a memorable way.”

But after being part of Miami’s Fontainebleu resort opening, Joey hit a wall. “I thought, what am I doing with my time? And who gives a shit?” So he quit. And from there, anything that put food on the table gained a new prerequisite: He had to want to do it for free. He helped start a yoga clothing company, bouncing him between home in Miami and doing product launches in Las Vegas. And the launch events were great. So great that, after moving to Vegas the first time, in 2004, his events caught Hsieh’s attention. But at that point, he was mostly living in Miami.

Hsieh asked Joey to move to Vegas — and live with him. “He said stick around, you can stay here, you don’t have to pay anything,” Joey says. “We’re going to need you for a lot of things going on.”

So he did, and they did. Joey put together the marketing for Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness book release and its 23-city book tour, spending an intimate amount of time with his would-be business partner. “Joey has always been passionate, reliable and attentive to detail — a tough combination to find,” Hsieh says. “When he commits to doing something he puts his entire heart into it.”

Joey started doing more projects for Zappos. More launches. A marathon. In fact, at the time this article is published, he won’t be able to name anything he’s working on that isn’t Zappos-related — though in the past he produced the Punk Rock Bowling weekend and set up the Flightlinez ziplines. But Joey got as close to being a Zappos employee as you can get without a Zappos W-2 form. “Once you get an inside view of this company and these people it’s the most amazing company on Earth,” he says. “We’ve got this Tony character who’s a pretty special human being who has the awareness to say we don’t need to be in the middle of this, we can help facilitate this and help connect people.”

At this point I need to level with you. Of the 9,000 words of transcript from the times I met Joey, maybe a third of those tout the glory and the brilliance and the humanity of Zappos. Let’s call these the Kool-Aid answers. Tony does this for downtown. Tony does that for tech startups. Glug, glug, glug. He admits to being a disciple of the Temple of Tony. And that seems to be part of what spooks the townspeople.

Researching this assignment, I couldn’t find a single gallery owner willing to speak on-record about what they think of the new First Friday team. One spoke about being wary of the amount of money going into First Friday without an immediately apparent return, though she didn’t have any concrete evidence to imply a hidden agenda or foul play. Another spoke in boilerplate about how it’s good for downtown and she doesn’t really know Joey but she’s sure he’s a great guy and wait I don’t think I want this coming back to me and I don’t think I should say anything and sorry click. I understood the fear. If they get any bad blood with this team, they could be politely ostracized. It’s not like many other millionaires are running around throwing money at their community. And, from their perspective, they don’t have any assurance that money won’t dry up.

They both have a point. The investment amount of the First Friday LLC is often quoted in millions. And the return on that investment is practically nil. But Joey says that doesn’t matter. It’s about building a community. Sure, that translates into more businesses in which Hsieh is invested and could possibly see return on — though they’re outweighed by probability of failure.

I have a hard time picking out the differences between slick-tongued marketing speak and earnest faith. He could just be the voice box for a group trying to buddy up to downtown and take it over. Hsiehville, to use a word Joey heard once. But then I met him one more time.

Joey is one of the few name-recognized members of the Zappos close affiliates who doesn’t live in The Ogden. Last December, he bought a house downtown, where I met him a week before writing these words. It isn’t a modest rambler. It’s a compound. Big sheets of window peer into a huge front yard, fenced in wrought-iron that’s topped in gold fleur di lis. It looks like it could’ve been a safe house. I ask Joey who owned it before he did.

He says Bob Stupak. I say that’s so freaking cool.

It’s floor-to-ceiling completely unnecessary and impractical architecture. A full bar with the brass foot rest and cigarette burns in the dark wood from Stupak/Wynn all-night downtown planning meetings. As he describes the lighting fixtures and the conversations held beneath them, Joey lights up with every piece of punctuation. He doesn’t say it outright, but it’s what he’s thinking: That’s what he’s doing. He’s helping shape downtown, Stupak to Hsieh’s Wynn.

This is the hold-it moment. At the end of the day, Joey Vanas isn’t a member of government. He isn’t a czar. And no matter what the murmurs are over plastic cups of wine in any number of gallery hallways, he will not make or break downtown. Joey Vanas is a man who runs an arts festival. Throughout the course of the month, he’ll try to make that clear. “It’s not going to rebuild downtown,” he says. “It’s just going to be a spark and a catalyst to get the right critical mass of people down here to take the ball and run with it.”

In Bob Stupak’s old living room, Joey’s sister plays with his nephew, Gus. They speak Spanglish. Joey’s brother-in-law walks in. His mother and father aren’t there, but that’s atypical.

We walk outside, past the pool to the place Joey sleeps, when he sleeps. It’s a studio casita, with just enough room for a bed, a desk, a bathroom and a kitchen. Warmed up from the bright plans for his Stupak original, he speaks openly. He describes leaving home in Florida at 18, four years after his sister did the same thing. How, before he asked her and her husband to move to Vegas to be nearby, he only saw her twice a year for 18 years. Later, he’d tell his parents to move in, too. He hated that they were working through old age instead of retiring and spending time with their grandson and children. “I told them move out here and we’ll figure it out,” Joey says. “But you aren’t going to work. You’re going to spend time with your family. I think it’s awesome to have my parents here.

“That was the impetus for buying the house, too,” he says. “I was trying to get them to move out here, so I wanted a place to move my whole family to. I wanted to make it something we have in the family forever. If something doesn’t work out, we can just come back here.”

The Kool-Aid answers still lurk in his replies, but they don’t feel like they’re written down somewhere. He addresses the artists from earlier, the ones who worry about First Friday LLC’s intentions. “It’s not just the artists — it’s the city at large,” he says. “People are always put off or slightly afraid of things they don’t understand. This is our home. We love it here, and we want to make it a better place, where ideas can flourish and there’s an infrastructure, a belief system that you can come and do anything. We want to attract more amazing and inspiring and passionate people to live here.”

Within 36 hours of this story landing on your newsstand, Joey will be back in that golf cart. He’ll make sure the ice is stocked. He’ll make sure the artists have checked in. He’ll greet the food and drink vendors by their first names. I could have written any other date that coincided with First Friday in the last year, and the next three sentences would’ve stayed the same, and they probably will a month later, when First Friday turns 10. With every month, First Friday expands and more people attend. More ideas are expressed and implemented. More boundaries are pushed. “The Burning Man model won’t work here,” he says. “But it’s that mentality that if people cooperate and work together it’s limitless. They’ll realize that there aren’t as many barriers as you may think. And that’s the Burning Man secret sauce that we want to re-create. Anything is possible if you work together.”