This is the story of a Southwestern city that endures an economic beating, somehow picks up the pieces of its downtown, attracts some hip and young investors, and climbs out of recession with new businesses and a new attitude.
It’s not, of course, Las Vegas. At least not yet. It’s Austin, Texas, which went through an economic implosion in the dot-com crash and sustained recession in the early 2000s that left its downtown an empty husk. Now, Austin is a bright, shiny jewel of nightlife, residential growth and investments large and small.
As Nevada’s largest city struggles to recover from the deepest recession in decades, there are those who think Las Vegas can learn a bit from the Texas town’s success. Will Wynn, the former Austin mayor who presided over downtown Austin’s turnaround, recently shared his insights into what worked for his city as a guest of the Downtown Project’s speakers series.
Wynn’s proud of his record with Austin, which can be described in a number of ways: the capital of Texas; the home of the University of Texas; the live music capital of the world; an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red.
In the 1980s, Wynn said, Austin was a hot commodity. Computer-related companies and their employees flocked to Austin’s suburbs. When the bubble burst, job loss and economic stagnation replaced rapid growth.
Downtown Austin was never wholly a part of the good times, but it participated fully in the recession, as the urban core was saddled with empty buildings, including a couple of newer high-rises. There was a “20-year construction hiatus” in his downtown, Wynn said.
Wynn and downtown boosters, desperate to turn things around, threw a number of things against the wall in the hope that something would stick, something would provide the spark to revitalize downtown, an area that had just 125 residents by the early 2000s. Photos from the area show boarded-up buildings, including historic antebellum structures owned by the city; empty industrial streets; and a deserted waterfront along the Colorado River (Texas has its own Colorado, not the same river as ours).
But the city made changes, said Wynn, who is an architect and urban planner. It lobbied to change a state law that prohibited outdoor seating at restaurants. It created a boardwalk along the waterfront. It removed street lanes that were more than wide enough to accommodate sparse automobile traffic, replacing those lanes with shade trees and wide sidewalks.
The city encouraged micro-businesses, pedicabs, a car share program, a farmers market.
Downtown buildings could take advantage of free area air-conditioning through a water system provided by the city.
All of these factors contributed to Austin’s revival. The city now is a hotbed of residential growth and is one of the most desirable urban habitats in the country, Wynn said.
The lesson that Austin learned, and could teach to cities like Las Vegas? “Lure 25-year-olds, and the jobs will follow them,” Wynn said. The Texas city succeeded by sticking to its slogan, “Keep Austin weird,” a move that distinguished the capital from its larger urban neighbors such as Dallas and Houston.
Along the way to success, Austin encountered some of the same headaches that Las Vegas is experiencing now. Services for the homeless are concentrated in the urban core. In both cities, development meant some businesses were negatively affected and some were shuttered.
But Wynn said that for every place that closed, “far more took their place.”
Can the success of Austin be translated to Las Vegas? The Downtown Project thinks so. Downtown Project’s Tony Hsieh, who has promised to pump $350 million into Las Vegas’ urban core, got his doctoral and masters degrees from the University of Texas and has made pilgrimages to Austin’s premier annual music and cultural festival, South by Southwest.
Kim Schaefer, spokeswoman for Downtown Project, said there are some important shared histories between the two cities.
“I think any community that undergoes a really tough time economically is profoundly shaped by it,” she said. “I can see that those tough times have had some positive effects here. … They created an environment where people are more willing to become personally invested in a place, where people long to feel connected to one another. And it created conditions where people have become more open to new ideas and possibilities for the place they call home.
“Those results definitely have happened here in Las Vegas,” she added. “I believe that they are part of what has made so many people so excited and eager to recreate a downtown experience that belongs truly to the people of Las Vegas. … I can’t say that we would ever want to reproduce Austin in Las Vegas. It’s much more our goal to help revitalize Downtown Las Vegas while helping to preserve what is already cool about it.”
Chris Stream, director of the UNLV School of Environmental and Public Affairs, knows both cities. He said Austin can be a nice place to live and work.
“The downtown [of Austin] is nice — I’ve been there many, many times — if you consider ‘nice’ lots of bars. It sort of depends on your definition,” he said. “Certainly, there’s a lot of construction, a lot of development. It’s an ever-evolving place. Some things succeed, some things fail. … Austin has a definite advantage in that its reputation enhanced it as a place to be, not only among Texans, but enhances it outside the state as well.”
There are important differences between the two cities. Austin’s downtown is adjacent to the sprawling University of Texas campus, with almost 40,000 students and thousands of full-time teaching and administrative jobs. “The University of Texas is huge,” Stream said. “That really creates an advantage that we don’t have in Las Vegas.”
The impact is magnified because most of our city’s residents and leaders of business have not graduated from UNLV, our university.
“Las Vegas is not unique in that way,” Stream said. “Orlando might be a better comparison [than Austin]. It’s a transient, out-of-state community, dominated by out-of-state entities. The University of Central Florida is more like UNLV than the University of Texas.” Of course, it’s also hotter, drier and there is no waterfront in Las Vegas.
But Stream agrees with Wynn and others that Las Vegas could find a path to similar downtown prosperity. The critical question is if the renaissance in downtown Las Vegas’ economic prospects, created or enhanced by the Downtown Project, is sustainable.
“I wish I had the crystal ball,” Stream said. “That is the important question. It will depend, of course, on symbolic things to draw people down there, but in the end there will have to be things of substance, jobs and careers, to fill that area.”
And the question of sustainability revolves around the ability of the Clark County School District and UNLV and other schools to produce the educated workforce that will help make downtown a place for business to relocate.
“Can we as an institution at UNLV and the school district change to meet those demands?” Stream asked. “We’re probably 50-50 on the chances of sustainability right now. There’s certainly great opportunities and great hope, but it could come crashing down just as easily. Me, personally, I’m on the optimistic side.”
Wynn is also optimistic.He said there are important differences, but there are “far more similarities.”
“When I walk around this part of Las Vegas,” he said from the Downtown Project’s downtown Container Park, “I see the same streetscapes that I used to see in Austin.”
Schaefer, with Downtown Project, said the key is not to try to mimic Austin’s success, but to take those lessons that work. “We wouldn’t want to reproduce what happened in Austin. Learn from it? Yes. Be inspired by it? Absolutely. But the key is to find ways to help downtown Las Vegas be the best downtown Las Vegas it can be.”