Tuesday, June 11th, 2013
Nashville has been on a roll in recent years, with a rapidly growing population (including a rapidly expanding immigrant base), robust job growth (#1 among large cities in 2012 on a percentage basis), and lots of positive national press. I’ve been visiting about once a year in recent years and have always had a good time and been very impressed with the ambition level and positive change and growth.
But one symbol of the coming of age of Nashville, the nearly new Schermerhorn Center, home to the Nashville Symphony, is now an emblem of trouble, though perhaps less for the city than for classical music in general.
In short, the building is in foreclosure. Bank of America, which received more government bailout money than any other bank, is threatening to seize and auction the building for cash on June 28th. The Symphony’s auditor has given it a going concern warning, and bankruptcy is looking likely.
This would appear to be a strange turn of events for a town and a symphony on the rise. The Nashville Symphony was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards, at least one of which they won. Just last year the symphony’s president was talking about “a golden age of classical music” in the city. The Schermerhorn Center was a symbol of both the orchestra’s and the city’s ambitions to be taken seriously.
But there were warning signs from the beginning. A planned major endowment never materialized. With only $9.2 million in the endowment, the Nashville Symphony is effectively a pay as you go organization. Other orchestras can get up to a third of their budget from large endowments. The symphony also apparently borrowed a significant sum of money to build the structure and did not pre-fund it with donations. As noted by the University of Chicago report “Set in Stone,” cities across America pumped vast sums into cultural facilities in the last decade. Many of these are struggling in a post-crash world.
Also, as I’ve noted before, classical music is troubled, and the symphony orchestra is the most difficult type of classical music organization to reinvent because of its lack of multimedia experience a la opera, and its high costs. If orchestras struggle even in boomtowns like Nashville, that augurs poorly for their success elsewhere.
Also, it appears that outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker. At least not to the extent that local elites are willing to part with their own money to fund them. As we’ve gone to an ultra-casual world, and theories on urban success like creative class move explicitly away from traditional high culture, orchestras seem increasingly expendable. Cities want to keep one around to avoid looking bad, but they aren’t willing to ante up for true excellence.
In any case, this is one to watch, especially considering how great Nashville as been doing otherwise.
Here is more complete coverage from the Nashville Tennessean:
Sunday, June 2nd, 2013
This is the second installment in my look at the Las Vegas Downtown Project. In part one I gave an overview of the project and some of the positives and success indicators. On Thursday I looked at some of the commonalities between Vegas and other small cities as a bridge to this installment. And finally today I want to look at some of the challenges I see with the Downtown Project and ask, will it succeed?
As for the answer to that question, some of it is a matter of how you define success. At a base level, there’s already been success. Downtown Las Vegas is now on the mental map and the discussion agenda for urbanists around the country. The product offering is already better. Also, the original concept of building an extended urban campus for Zappos seems likely to succeed. Downtown will certainly be light-years ahead of where it started as a live/work/play environment.
Other goals are more speculative. Can Zappos avoid the sub-linear scaling curse? We shall see, but given that the same leadership is running both the company and the Downtown Project, this is a good laboratory and case study for business schools to look at.
The big, aspirational goals around making Vegas the most community focused city in the world, and the co-working and co-learning capital of the world seem much more challenging. My previous post around common traits of small cities shows why there’s lot of competition in the community department. Also, with NYC having an estimated 50 co-working facilities already, it seems unlikely Vegas is ever going to win in co-working on volume of activity.
Still, better to aim high than low I always say. But looking forward to how Downtown Project plays out, I see three major areas of concern: the conventionality of the program, the fact that it goes against the DNA of Las Vegas, and challenge of curating a city versus running a company.
The Conventionality of Downtown Project
One thing that struck me when I saw Tony’s original talk at BIF-8 is the conventionality of much of what is being done. The project has a reputation for being very innovative, but most of the components of it are conventional wisdom. Or “best practices” if you will.
Car share, collisions, fashion, tech startups, co-working, art, music, coffeeshops, restaurants, etc. Everything is exceptionally buzzword compliant, right down the PBR on tap in the local establishments. All of the boxes are checked perfectly – too perfectly.
I described the project as Ed Glaeser meets Richard Florida which highlights how this happened. They consulted with all the gurus, from Elon Musk to Burning Man. And all the leading edge thinking was incorporated into the program.
But think about Zappos for a minute. If you ever take the tour, it’s obvious that this is a very unique and different company. Here’s a snap:
The scene at Zappos
The Zappos culture and service mentality did not come from taking the best of Seth Godin, Jim Collns, etc. and creating a company culture from them. I’m sure that their HR policies, finance, tech, etc use many methods and tools common to all companies. But the company is not an amalgamation of best practices. Nor is the unique company culture and zaniness just frosting applied to a cake that’s similar to any other. It cuts through everything they do.
By contrast, I just don’t get the same sense of uniqueness in downtown Vegas. What makes downtown Vegas unique is unrelated to Downtown Project (e.g., casinos). There are definitely things I think they’ve innovated on. The Telsa car share and modal integration take that to a new level. The crash pads and sales mentality create a “WOW” experience that’s clearly unique – and probably explain why the project has gotten so much positive press. But those things don’t change the fact that they are basically trying to do what Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida told every city to do.
This I think limits what can be accomplished. Every city has coffee shops, a budding startup community, bars and restaurants, etc. They are all adding livable streets infrastructure and such. They’ve all got a lot of exciting stuff happening. The challenge is how to create the Zappos of cities. That is, a place when you go there you’re blown away by how unique it is and how cool is. And which has a certain polarizing effect, much like Zappos itself, which is not for everybody. Definitely the “WOW” thing they’ve got going with rolling out the red carpet is a great start. A willingness to stay a bit niche and not actually scale so they can preserve the uniqueness might be part of it too (more on this later).
To be fair, given how bleak downtown Vegas is, they pretty much have no choice but to build the basics, which every city needs. Almost by definition, the basics are conventional. So I should probably give them more time to see how this evolves.
Challenging the Vegas DNA
Another challenge is that they are directly going against the brand and cultural DNA of Las Vegas. Vegas is about gambling, etc. While there are definitely regular things in Vegas, including nice boring suburbs, the core of it seems to be in everything centered around casinos.
Downtown Project not only isn’t trying to roll with this but is actively cutting against the grain. The tech fund isn’t investing in gaming technology companies, for example, which is the obvious logical niche. Rather than trying to do cool-urban casinos or some such, they actually bought a casino (the Gold Spike) and ripped out the gambling.
I understand this perfectly because it is exactly what most smaller, unhip cities try to do. You want to join the club, so you think you have to fit in. I have noted how the one thing everyone in the world thinks of when they think of Indianapolis, the 500-Mile Race, is something that’s never talked about by the local urban crowd. To them auto racing is declasse and an emblem of the past city they’d like to think they’ve transcended. Indy is way more than auto-racing today, goes the logic. Almost every city goes through this phase.
One of the things I’ve been most passionate about and that I feel most strongly about generally is the idea that cities need to be themselves. They need to understand who they are and build the future around that, not around junking the past. Yes, change to be sure. But remember who you are. My post “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis” gives the overview of my thinking on that. Cities simply cannot sever their roots and expect to thrive in most cases.
Going against the DNA of your city mean’s you are swimming upstream. As Paul Graham noted in “Cities and Ambition“:
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.
It’s very tough to overcome the message that a city repeats in your ear over and over again. And for Vegas trying to reinvent itself around creative collisions, it’s doubly hard as Richard Florida put it in last place for creative class share among large cities. Trying to go from worst to first is a tough challenge indeed.
I come from a consulting background and so am obsessed with strategery. So my own biases are showing. But what do companies obsess about? Their unique customer segments and their value propositions to it, along with the financial model for realizing value. In short, it’s about the brand DNA. It amazes me to no end that while most companies try to convince you how unique and different they are from every other company in their market (Zappos being a great example), virtually every city is trying to convince you that they’re just like every other cool city (tech hub, creative, etc).
What’s the first thing a new creative director does when trying to revive a fashion house that’s fallen on hard times? Pay a visit to the archives. What is this company all about? It’s the same with cities. What is this city all about? And with most cities that question was asked and answered a long before we got there or were even born. The founding ethos of a city is almost impossible to displace. (The best documentation of this is E. Digby Baltzell’s “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia” which showed how the founding ethos of the Puritans and the Quakers permeated every aspect of those cities’ cultures up until the present day). So to understand this you have to dig below the surface (which in the case of Vegas would be gambling I guess) and become a sort of anthropologist. I’m sure my surface analysis of Vegas as about casinos is off and that deeper digging needs to be done. But it doesn’t appear to be a creative capital type of place, etc.
So in thinking about how to transcend conventionality, I think aligning with not against the civic DNA is important. In fact, the Downtown Project already has one area where they have done this and it is by far the most compelling thing I’ve seen them do. This is a hybrid of what they call “Subscribe to Las Vegas” and “Las Vegas Makes You Smarter.”
The idea behind subscribing to Las Vegas is that not everyone can or wants to move there. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of the community. Some people are choosing to live or work there part time – say one week a month. The notion is that one purposeful visitor or part timer who is fully engaged in the community and “collisionable” is as good or better than a full time resident that is sitting home watching TV or at work in the burbs.
“Las Vegas makes you smarter” I believe came out of all the people Tony was bringing in to check out Downtown Project. He started asking them to give a presentation while they were in town. Most people said Yes. Hence the downtown speaker series and the notion of Vegas as a place you can get exposed to great minds and knowledge.
These are very in line with the Vegas DNA. First, most people don’t want to move to Vegas. But almost everyone would love to visit. So the idea of becoming a regular visitor to the city is an easy sell to a lot of people. It’s directly in line with the tourism focus of the city. Plus the air connections are superb to it’s easy to get into and out of. The speaker series also goes along with this. On any given day there are already tons of A-list people in Vegas. All you’ve got to do is convince a handful of them to make a community contribution.
So I think finding things like these are critical to building the “Only in Las Vegas” downtown experience that would be best. That’s not to say even this is without challenge. Downtown Vegas does not appear to be an intellectual center. While technology has certainly made it harder to tell, I didn’t see a single person reading a newspaper or book while I was there. There aren’t even that many boxes selling the local newspaper downtown, or a bookstore that I found. The book selection at the Beat Coffeehouse didn’t wow me either. However, I’m told the Inspire Theater that’s being built to house the speakers series will also have Vegas’ largest newsstand and that a bookstore is being looked at.
Can You Curate a Community and a City?
Zappos is known as a company that is very intentional about its culture. The know what they are trying to build, the invest in it, and they take great pains to protect it. But can you apply the same sort of intentionality to the city?
Real cities aren’t just about collisions, they are about conflict. “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” says the proverb. This is different from “Hey, you’re cool. I’m cool. Let’s be cool together and collaborate.” It’s about people with very different agendas and ideas competing for the same space (in every sense of the word “space”). As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.”
This is where the blank slate of downtown Vegas is a weakness. Because there’s nothing around but casinos and government, there’s really no vision I see apart from Downtown Project. And Downtown Project is investing in people and projects that are compatible with their vision. In effect, they are self-selecting for a monoculture, or for diversity within a particular worldview or paradigm. People who move to downtown Vegas personally or move their business there are likely going to do it because they are bought into the Downtown Project vision. It’s not exactly central economic planning, but there may actually be too much shared vision. I didn’t run into anybody who didn’t think the current approach was right on.
What’s more, because Downtown Project has been so successful in garnering mindshare and national press, it may have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Unless a local casino billionaire or something gets attracted, anyone who wants to play in downtown Vegas is probably going to find it hard to gain mindshare unless they sign onto the Tony Show as it were. Another city with more of a plurality of players might actually be a better platform for getting noticed if you want to do your own thing.
This is where I think a city functions differently than a company. Downtown Las Vegas is not Zappos at a larger scale. It’s a fundamentally different kind of organism.
I’m not convinced it’s even possible to curate a community at more than a small scale anyway. Once more and more people come, you won’t have the same level of community because it will just plain be bigger and more anonymous. And what happens when people start showing up who don’t share the ethos, but are just there to consume? The magic starts to fade. This is exactly what Tony himself went through with the post-peak decline of rave culture and the erosion of PLUR.
Perhaps that magic fading ought to be the big goal after all, to create something that Downtown Project ultimately loses control of because it is so successful that others come in and build something on top of their platform that they never imagined. Maybe it won’t be the co-working capital of the world. But maybe it will be just as cool – or even cooler. Many of the best things turn out to be something their founders never could have imagined. It may be that the best tribute possible to Tony would be if his project became something radically different than what he ever thought it could be.
Though I obviously have my differences with some of the Downtown Project vision, you have to admire the chutzpah it takes to bring that much ambition to such as bleak place. What they’ve accomplished in such a short time with so little money and with so meager a starting platform in the city is very impressive, especially in contrast to the taxpayer money pits that exist in all too many places. And a number of the things they’ve done are particularly great, especially the subscriber model and their focus on selling downtown Las Vegas (which is truly the best I’ve every seen anywhere – definitely “WOW”). Clearly it’s a place everyone ought to visit to see for themselves – and to find out if Tony can talk you into moving there and starting your own business…
Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
Here’s a test to see how many of you are actually serious about attracting creatives and building a creative economy in your city: will you actually watch this 53 minute documentary about Berlin that’s in German with subtitles?
“In the Belly of a Whale” is a great film that consists of talking head style ruminations on the art scene and life as a creative in Berlin. The people featured are “all in” as artists and fully part of that scene themselves (though as you’ll see most of them wear many hats). We get to see plenty of their often very cool art as well as hear some cool tunes.
Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base. Nobody has succeeded like Berlin.
First the video, then some additional commentary on what I saw in it. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
I have generally argued that talent migration is not a zero sum game. However, according to these folks Berlin really has hoovered up a good chunk of Germany’s artists. This makes it more difficult to be an artist today in second tier cities than it was in the past. How true this is I don’t know. The people here clearly take a “global elite” type view. They frequently refer to places like New York and London. They clearly recognize that Berlin is in the top echelon by reputation in the global art world and don’t hesitate to act like it (though they candidly recognize Berlin’s weaknesses).
How does this play out elsewhere? I do think there are certain industries that are extremely centralized. Art and fashion are two of those. There are only real commercial markets in a handful of places. So while secondary cities can perhaps attract more artists and creatives than they did in the past (just as they have more coffee shops than they did back in the 80s or 90s, for example), building a real economy out of this will be extremely difficult. While this might seem insulting, the art would in a smaller city is to some extent scenery or decoration, not the integral part of the city and its economy that it is in Berlin.
This is probably doubly true since even in Berlin there’s no money in art. None of these people really make much of a living from it, except one person who seems to exhibit internationally. They all admit people in Berlin want cool stuff, but don’t want to pay for it. You need international representation to get paid. But what Berlin lacks economically, it makes up for in dirt cheap rents, abandoned buildings without clear title (even today), and an unmatched richness of interaction with other creatives.
I do think it’s fair to say that while perhaps the artists haven’t profited much from their work, the city has. The art scene and the techno scene (which seem very inter-related) have put Berlin on the map and drive huge tourism dollars. So I’m guessing the economic impact is much higher than direct art spending. However, having a collection of artists unmatched anywhere in the world has certainly not succeed in turning Berlin into an economic dynamo, and the city remains “poor but sexy” as its mayor once said.
In any case, if “creativity” is on your city’s agenda, then this is a much watch video. Also must-watch is Real Scenes: Berlin that I previously posted. That one is a nice complement that covers the rise of the techno scene and the reasons behind that.
Monday, May 27th, 2013
The Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an attempt to completely reinvent downtown Las Vegas spearheaded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, is one of the better known downtown revitalization initiatives in America. I’ve been planning to write on it since I saw Tony speak about it in Providence last fall. I was kicked in the pants to finally do so by a trip I took to Vegas last week to check the Downtown Project out.
Before going any further, I should disclose that I stayed there for free in one of the project’s “crash pad” apartments (more on those later). I also previously had a small financial relationship with affiliated entity. And I bought my running shoes on Zappos and might have gotten a free upgrade on shipping. But while this article will be very positive on Downtown Project, please stay tuned for part two before dismissing me as a shill. That’s where I plan to cover the negatives.
What Is the Downtown Project?
There’s nobody better to tell you want the Downtown Project is than Tony Hsieh himself. Here’s the talk he gave on it in Providence at BIF-8, a sort of TED-like conference. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
In brief, Downtown Project is seeking to reinvent downtown Las Vegas as a community oriented innovation hub. The genesis was Zappos’ purchase of the old Las Vegas city hall as a headquarters. Rather than a traditional tech campus like you might try to find in the suburbs, Tony wanted to build an urban campus more like NYU where Zappos was integrated into the city.
Here’s a picture of City Hall/Zappos future headquarters:
This was not an entirely altruistic move. Research shows that corporations have sub-linear scaling. That is, they become less productive for innovation as they get bigger. But cities have super-linear scaling as they get larger. That is, cities get more productive for innovation as they grow larger. Part of the idea of Downtown Project is to preserve the innovative and productive capacity of Zappos as it scales by hybridizing the company with the urban environment of downtown Las Vegas.
If you’ve read Tony’s book Delivering Happiness you know that customer service is Zappos differentiator, and its company culture is the foundation of making service and everything else they do happen. So unsurprisingly, culture is a big part of what the Downtown Project is setting out to do. There are three project goals. They want to make downtown Las Vegas:
- A true live/work/play environment
- The most community-oriented downtown in the world
- The co-working and co-learning capital of the world
The strategy to accomplish this is basically Ed Glaeser meets Richard Florida. It’s about density, creative class activities, collisions (aka serendipitous interactions), and openness (aka tolerance). From there, as Tony puts it, “The magic will happen on its own.” Or that’s the theory. The magic is intended to be happiness, luckiness, innovation, and productivity.
To make this happen Tony raised $350 million for the Downtown Project. It’s a separate entity from Zappos though it isn’t clear who the investors behind it actually are. (The information may be out there somewhere. Some have suggested Tony is paying for the entire thing himself. Once before he took every penny he made from selling a startup and rolled it into Zappos, so I guess it’s possible. He certainly has a huge appetite for risk. However, when I’ve heard him describe the project, it has only been as “privately funded” which suggests other investors. Given that this is in effect a Zappos campus buildout project, one would hope the company is actually contributing, especially as Amazon now owns it. Whatever the case, clearly Tony is calling the shots and is personally involved at the most intimate level).
Now that sounds like a lot of money, but you could easily spend way more than that on just one real estate project. So instead of just trying to build a bunch of apartments or something, a good chunk of the money is penciled in for “software” type of activities. The allocation is $200M for real estate, $50M for tech startups, $50M for small businesses, and $50M for education, arts, and culture. The real estate money seems to be going quickly as the Las Vegas Sun has reported that the Downtown Project has already spent at least $93 million just on land acquisition, buying 28 acres, mostly along Fremont between Las Vegas Blvd. and Maryland. Their ability to transform the city through purely building would appear to be limited.
The software consists of two venture capital funds. One is going for traditional tech startups, many of which Tony is personally recruiting to Las Vegas. So far there have been about 30 takers, though these are mostly very small enterprises. The other is for small business infrastructure like boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants with a focus on owner-operated businesses that are unique or best in class.
Natalie Young, owner and chef at Eat, a Downtown Project funded breakfast/lunch restaurant (and a very good one too!) – Image via Eating Las Vegas
The Beat Coffeehouse. (Not a Downtown Project funded venture AFAIK) – Image via Timothy Dahl
Both of these are bona fide investment funds, but the focus is not necessarily short term profits. Rather, Tony likes to talk about “Return on Community” as their metric. This is really an investment mindset of necessity. Downtown Vegas has a huge chicken and egg problem. It won’t be attractive to business and residents unless there are cool things to do and the services people want. But the service oriented businesses won’t open until there’s demand. The Downtown Project is trying to solve this by in effect being a source of “patient equity” by pre-funding the services until critical mass is achieved. And of course the demand side is in part being addressed both by the Zappos move and the tech startup initiative. The goal is basically acceleration of what might have happened organically, though it’s too early to tell if there will be success.
I’m not sure what all is in the arts and education fund, but there’s plenty going on in those areas, including a downtown speaker series (with a theater to house it), the purchase of public art from the likes of Burning Man, and a major music festival called Life Is Beautiful. This category seems to be a catchall for filling in the gaps between the others. I’m not sure what fund these fall into, but there are also co-working spaces for fashion (Stitch Factory) and tech (Work in Progress) with a Tech Shop like space coming soon.
The project focus seems to be principally business attraction and programming. There’s little purely residential development to speak of, in part because that type of bricks and mortar project is so expensive. I’m sure the hope is that the environment will draw developer interest to provide the housing as demand is stimulated.
To sum up, Downtown Project is Tony Hsieh as real estate developer + venture capitalist + philanthropist. In effect, he is trying to be a curator/impresario for downtown Las Vegas.
Project Success Factors
I think there are two main things that the Downtown Project has going for it: the guy behind it and the city it is in.
The first is the man himself, Tony Hsieh. First, he’s a successful, proven serial entrepreneur. He also clearly isn’t scared off by massive risk. Beyond this, he just has general gettitude on cities, which is something that too few people calling the shots in the redevelopment efforts of similar sized cities can say. Because he runs basically the highest profile non-casino business in down, he’s got the gravitas (and the money) to convince the civic establishment to go along with way he wants. Or at least to get out of his way. In too many cities, the people who know what’s up are marginal and uninfluential versus traditional power players. The knowledge capital is there, but it’s not paired up with clout like it is with Tony. And as a superstar entrepreneur, he can command massive attention outside Las Vegas, as well as be very influential in recruitment of startups, etc. Tony H. is clearly the indispensable man on this project.
But Vegas is also the right city. I come at this as someone who has been a champion for overlooked post-industrial cities in the Heartland. So I’m guessing my reaction when I saw downtown Vegas is pretty similar to what advocates from other similar sized cities would say: This is it!?
Let’s be honest, what’s actually been physically achieved in downtown Las Vegas to date is quite limited. The Downcity Arts District in Providence is better than Fremont East. Over the Rhine and downtown Cincinnati blow Vegas out of the water. Downtown Indy already has more tech employees than Vegas will even after Zappos makes the move. Honestly, it’s a bit infuriating as a guy who lived in Indy, Louisville, and Providence to see a place where so little has happened garner such massive press and accolades when most other regions the size of Vegas have done more while getting far less attention.
However, I think we need to get a sense of perspective. The first thing to understand is that for all intents and purposes there is no such thing as “downtown” Las Vegas. What they call downtown has some older casinos and some government buildings, but that’s it. There’s no traditional employment or commercial core. There’s a grand total of one decent sized office building in the entire place. Here’s a picture:
That’s basically it. Most of downtown is either vacant or has marginal business activities at best. This old boarded up hotel is typical:
The streets of downtown are nearly deserted even in the middle of the day. You could shoot a cannon off and not hit anything.
By the way, that new building is the federal court house. The tall buildings further away are on the Strip. Here’s what you see across the street from Zappos:
Las Vegas has the single most savagely bleak downtown of any major city I’ve ever visited. The Downtown Project is almost literally starting at zero. There are practically no assets. So anything that the Downtown Project accomplishes needs to be seen against that backdrop. Most of these other cities have been at the downtown redevelopment game for 30+ years, have massive architectural and institutional assets, and have already been the recipients of untold billions in investment, much of it public money. There’s next to none of that in Vegas. Frankly when you see what’s already been done and is being done with $350M – and so quickly – it almost makes you weep to think about the billion dollars or so in taxpayer money that has gone into stadiums and arenas alone in so many other smaller cities. Oh, what could have been done with that instead!
Fremont East, an exception to the rule of bleakness. Most of the establishments on this block are not gambling oriented. The core of the Downtown Project is to extend this several blocks to the east. Image via Flickr/davelawrence8
At this point you may be wondering why I say this is a success factor. Simply, because it’s clear the elite of Las Vegas have completely abandoned and turned their backs on downtown. If they had even a smidgen of pride in their city, they would never have let it get like this with no effort to change it. This leaves the institutional playing field clear for people who actually know what they are doing.
I was chatting with one of the Downtown Project employees who is from Rhode Island. He compared the ease of getting things done in Las Vegas with the near impossibility in Rhode Island. In most places, there’s a spider web of competing land interests, power brokers, politicians, etc. all fighting over what happens downtown (especially who gets to receive all the subsidies). This seems to be immeasurably less true in Vegas. All of the action is on the Strip, so the downtown playing field is wide open. This is one place where the term “blank canvas” might really be appropriate. There’s probably an ability to execute in Las Vegas that simply doesn’t exist in other cities because of the lack of competing interests. (This is also a huge problem for Downtown Project, which I’ll cover in the next installment).
I want to wrap up this part with a look at some of the highlights of what Downtown Project is doing.
Actually, the most compelling thing that they are doing, a combination of what they call “Subscribe to Las Vegas” and “Las Vegas Makes You Smarter,” I’m going to save for part two so I can use them as the exception that proves the rule. However, there are some other very interesting things.
One is that Las Vegas is the only city I’ve ever visited that actually has sales and not just marketing. Let me explain. Every city in America obsesses over talent and spends beaucoup dollars on various talent initiatives, etc. Similarly, we hear about startups and building tech communities. But while everybody says they want this stuff, and while everyone has a web site and well-funded booster clubs, what nobody actually tries to do ever is actually recruit people unless there’s a specific job opening they are trying to fill.
I always like to do my “Urbanophile test” when I go speak somewhere. Obviously if people are willing pay me to come speak to them, they must think there’s at least some value I bring. But how many places I visit will actually attempt to sell me on their community as a place I might want to live? The answer is zero. I’ve talked to more than enough people to know this is a common occurrence. Nobody is actually selling their city.
Vegas is different. Downtown Project, and Tony personally, are aggressively involved in sales. They leased out 50ish units in a residential high rise called the Ogden (one of only a handful of residential properties downtown). They use these as what they call “crash pads.” They are for people who want to come check out downtown Vegas and the Downtown Project to stay free. They also make sure to showcase what they are doing. And they are going to try to show you how downtown Vegas could be a fit for you or your business. Tony himself is personally involved with this. I was able to take a small group walking tour with him, and part of his agenda was trying to sell a small retailer on setting up shop in a retail development they called Container Park. Here’s this guy who is a multi-mega-millionaire personally recruiting a small business. Hard to imagine there’s a lot of that going on in other places. Think having a tech rock star personally making the ask helps bring small tech outfits to Vegas? You bet it does. Unlike 99% of other cities in America, the downtown Vegas crowd is actually asking for the business.
The Ogden, home of the Downtown Project “crash pads” and what Tony calls the project’s “secret weapon” – Image via Business Insider (lots of good photos of downtown Vegas and the Downtown Project on that page)
Another item, as I highlighted earlier, is capital efficiency. It’s basically the Zappos do more with less ethos. A major retail development will be made out of shipping containers. A new hotel will be Airstream trailers. A casino called the Gold Spike is getting a fairly lo-fi makeover instead of getting scraped and replaced with a Taj Mahal. All of these are stretching $350M at lot further than it would go in most cities. Part of this is obviously of necessity, but is has big benefits. As Jamie Lerner of Curitiba put it, “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeros. If you want to make it happen, do it fast.”
The car share program they are setting up is also interesting. Firstly, the backbone of the fleet will be 100 Teslas. How cool is that? They are planning to do an entirely electric fleet. Also, the idea is to integrate bike share and every other mode of transport you might need into the same system, and have it accessible from your phone.
Lastly, a couple of the projects – the container space and a school – are oriented towards children. This is very rare to see, as families and children are simply not part of the equation in most cities that are targeting the “young and restless.” While the ubiquity of sexually oriented material in downtown Vegas means this will never be a truly kid-friendly environment, there’s at least an effort being made.
That’s a look at the project and a number of the positives about it. If this seems like too much puffery for a traditional Urbanophile post, stay tuned. Thursday I’ll take a brief look at the nature of community and collisions in small cities. Then I’ll follow-up with part two of this series where I examine my reservations about the project and the challenges it faces. Stay tuned.
Sunday, April 28th, 2013
I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.
Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.
For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.
We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.
Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.
Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.
The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”
A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.
Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.
Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.
Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.
Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.
How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).
Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?
I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.
Sunday, March 17th, 2013
[ I had a discussion with some folks this afternoon about, among other things, how to build new audiences for classical music. That reminded me I'd written this post, so I decided to resurrect it from the archives - Aaron. ]
Drew McManus, who runs a blog called Adaptistration, is publicizing Take a Friend to the Orchestra Week (TAFTO). The idea is that an existing patron, by sponsoring someone new to orchestra attendance, will create another classical music fan. It’s an excellent idea and one I heartily support, though one I think is likely to bear only limited fruit in building sustainable audiences for the long term.
The premise if TAFTO seems to be that if we expose people to classical music, they will like it. This is based on two assumptions that I think are both flawed:
1. Gaining an appreciation for classical music requires no work or effort, merely exposure. (There is some debate on this point, granted. Guest blogger Marc Geelhoed suggests having your guests listen to a recording several times casually before attending, suggesting at least some effort. I certainly support this. Alex Shapiro suggests that a raw, unmediated experience, where the music does the talking for itself, will do the trick).
2. Large numbers of people, probably a majority of people, are likely to enjoy classical music and even become big fans if they can only be introduced to it.
The easiest refutation of these is merely to look at what existing classical music fans listen to. It’s a largely static core repertoire of the major symphonic composers. There is little music frequently programmed prior to the time of Handel and Bach. Very little contemporary music is programmed. Even when these items are programmed, they are not nearly as popular as the traditional pieces.
The logic of TAFTO would suggest that we should have a classical music fan base that enjoys the full spectrum of Western art music. Home CD collections should be equally as full of Josquin and Palestrina as they are of Beethoven and Brahms. Modern compositions should be widely listened to and appreciated. Yet neither of these are the case. Why might that be? Some possibilities:
- Concert goers are not familiar with this work. That seems dubious. It is unlikely that regular symphony patrons have never encountered any works in these styles before. Remember, the logic is that attending once can hook you.
- Early and contemporary music are of lower quality and desirability than the Classical and Romantic eras. This is a defensible position, but I’ve yet to hear anyone seriously advocate it.
- Early and contemporary music is far more difficult to appreciate than the core repertoire. Again, defensible, but anyone making this argument has some explaining to do to convince us.
If seasoned classical music fans won’t try something new, or don’t like substantial amounts of music outside the core repertoire, why would we think someone with no background at all in classical music will attend a symphony concert and get hooked? I wouldn’t take that bet.
I suppose one could argue that existing concert goers are more conservative or set in their ways than total newbies, but this suggests that the public at large is actually more musically discerning than the existing classical music patron base, and somehow perhaps represent a better audience. (If that’s the case, then don’t start them with Beethoven, go straight to Boulez and let your audience for new music be made up of total newcomers to the field). Again, this is a position one can argue, but I’d like to see someone explicitly make it.
I for one believe that gaining an appreciation of classical music takes time and effort. Not a Ph.D. in musicology, but at least some level of desire and investment of time to make it happen. We live in an era that is divorced from the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and social context of the time that music was created. That creates a chasm that has to be crossed in order to access the riches beyond. Remember how people reacted to Beethoven’s works when they were expecting Classical era compositions. And even then the public had the advantage of familiarity with much of Beethoven’s musical language. For someone who’s never really listened to a classical piece before, there are some things it would be helpful to get up to speed on first.
Try to image someone whose musical background consists entirely of classical music. Now drop that person into a hip hop show cold. How likely is it that person is going to come away a fan? Not likely. That doesn’t mean this person can’t gain an appreciation for hip hop. But dropping him into an Eminem show with no prep probably isn’t going to do it.
I also don’t believe that, due to reasons of taste and inclination, the majority of the public will ever have any serious interest in classical music. Yes, they might enjoy hearing the William Tell Overture, or attend an outdoor summer performance of Beethoven’s 9th every now and again. But they are unlikely to be your core, engaged audience going forward. The sad fact is that with limited exception, the high arts have always largely appealed to a fairly select audience, usually those whose social position gave them the impetus (or obligation) and freedom to indulge it.
Let’s put this aside for now and just say that everyone can learn to appreciate classical music at some level. If they won’t be your regularly masterworks series subscriber, maybe they will at least come once or twice a year. The key is, given that there is no longer a social expectation of familiarity with classical music as part of being a generally cultured person, how do we build the interest?
I’ll use my own person path to exhibit this. I grew up with almost no exposure to classical music and never played an instrument, not even in high school band. In college, I ended up working for over two years at a classical music radio station, a position I pursued only because of my interest in audio engineering.
My favorite time to work was during the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday. You see, the opera was a continuous three hour chunk of network time, and I could just turn the monitor down to a low level to make sure we were still on air and read a book or study. In my entire time working at the station, I never gained an appreciation for classical music, even though I was exposed to countless hours of it. I was not only surrounded by it, I was surrounded by people from the music school who were obviously passionate about it. But it made no impact.
How did I learn to like classical music? Well, later in my 20′s I dated someone who loved opera and had a subscription. I went with her for two seasons. Later, after breaking up, I subscribed myself. Why I don’t know, because I didn’t like it all that much, truthfully. But by my fourth season, I finally “got it”. Part of this is because I got a course on tape (courtesy of new girlfriend who was now attending with me!) about opera that explained to me what was really going on and gave me my bearings. It was almost as if I had a zen-like flash of insight. It was like flipping a switch and somehow it all made sense. From there I branched out into other areas of classical music.
I think to really make a classical music fan, you need to get someone to the point where their switch flips, and this requires both a guide and some willingness to study and keep at it until you get it. I don’t think mere exposure is the answer. (Perhaps learning to play music will take you there – as a non-musician, I don’t know). I do think it takes some amount of desire and work on the part of someone to learn to appreciate classical music. Even to this day, when going to see an opera for the first time, I buy a CD and listen to it three times: one to just put the music in my head, another with the libretto in hand to follow along with, and a third to drive it all home.
Most people, I suspect, aren’t willing to make that investment. So I believe the classical music base will continue to be made up of a relatively small segment of any given community. Naturally arts groups will never say that, because without a mandate for serving the broader community, a lot of their funding would be in jeopardy, but it is the truth just the same. So these orchestras will duly spend time and money on outreach and putting on mini-operas for the kids. While this is good PR, I doubt it will have much long term impact on attendance. They are soil fertilizing techniques that I approve of, they set the stage later for possibly tuning in, but they won’t be sufficient by themselves.
What else is needed?
I do think there is something to this notion of an apprenticeship, of being guided to it by someone who is already “in the club” so to speak. This is both to get over the intimidation factor (e.g., understanding the protocol of concerts) and to explain what the heck is going on (e.g., a bit about who Mozart was, the classical era, and the basis of the symphonic form). But contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe that accessibility is all that important and may in fact be harmful. Rather, we should try to play up the idea of exclusivity, albeit an exclusivity that is available to anyone who wants to put in the effort. Look at almost any activity or interest that appeals to a limited group: pens, high end bespoke tailoring, modern furnishings, raw denim, mechanical watches, wine, skateboarding, you name it. All of them rely on a sort of insider knowledge to render them the province of a self-selected elite. But they are reasonably approachable. They create the idea of this exclusive club, use that aspiration to attract you, then slowly guide you in, letting the committed through the door while weeding out the pretenders.
In short, classical music should sell itself as a luxury lifestyle product. That doesn’t mean superficial consumption for the rich, it means appealing to the connoisseur in a spirit of genuine connoisseurship. And the great news is that if someone is a connoisseur of one thing, they are much more likely to become a connoisseur of another. So you’ve got a ready made audience out there of people who enjoy all the things I listed above and way more I didn’t. And what’s more, once people like this get into something, they really get into it and really do want to understand the ins and outs in a deep and rich way. In fact, they often become obsessive. (Sound familiar to any classical music folks out there???)
You might also notice that luxury brands apart from the ultra-elite usually have a few products that are accessible financially to the masses to get people interested and hooked. Then people can move up the food chain as their wallets and inclination allows. Similarly, classical music has to be able to find some entry level membership that lets people get in the door and gives them a path to move up. But you can’t lose site of the exclusivity factor. Positioning classical music as a totally mass market product “for everyone” only diminishes its appeal. You need exclusivity, the entry point, the “guide” to help you in, and the upwards path. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is an almost universal template.
I should also note that this approach is very in line with the trend that hit in earnest in the mid-90′s of the fragmentation of the great American common culture in favor of a multiverse of niche cultures.
As always I can’t promise this is the answer, but the way I figure it, it can’t work any worse than what we’ve got now. And by the way, the same logic applies to getting existing classical fans to try new things as well – though I suspect that really is an even harder journey given the number of years current listening habits have been “burned in” for many of them.
This post originally ran on February 25, 2009.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2013
The video below, Never Built Los Angeles, was from a Kickstarter campaign for an art exhibit looking at things that were proposed (at least at some level) but never actually built in LA. It’s a fascinating look at what might have been. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t New Geography
Here’s a bonus fun one of LA. It’s a time lapse of the space shuttle Endeavor crossing LA to reach its new home. This actually gives a better look at the city than you get out of a lot of time lapses that are specific city features. If this one doesn’t display, click here.
Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
You may recall me previously posting a couple documentaries from Resident Advisor about the electronic music scenes in Detroit and Berlin. I thought these, especially the Berlin one, brought interesting insights about the way the creative scene (and economy) got developed in those places.
There are a couple more of these out now, and one of them, the video on Paris, is another gem. I’m embedding below. As you watch, notice a couple things related to the new geography of creativity. First, the scene in Paris has basically been dead. One would think that Paris would be a music hotbed perhaps, but it would appear to be a fairly boring city. In this way perhaps we see that the large traditionally elite culture centers have become victims of their own success. Secondly, the real action in Paris is now in the suburbs (other than a few Sunday afternoon outdoor events). The city of Paris is now simply too expensive for creativity to flourish. Thus the creative class of the city has been forced into the unfashionable suburbs to do their thing. Again, this is somewhat against the grain of the notion that you need to be in the center of the action or you can’t possibly succeed because of agglomeration effects, etc. The dynamics here are worth pondering, especially in conjunction with what we learn from Berlin.
Here’s the video. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
Wednesday, November 7th, 2012
Most of you probably know Carol Coletta well by now. She was formerly head of CEOs for Cities and now runs Art Place. She’s a great thinker and speaker on cities. She recently spoke at the Business Innovation Factory conference in Providence. I was only able to attend day one and so miss her talk on day two. Lucky for me, the videos are now now online, so I could watch her TED-like talk and share it with you.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Sunday, September 2nd, 2012
Orchestras in financial trouble seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Yet another such saga is playing out in Indianapolis, where the board is planning to downsize and downgrade the orchestra, going from one of only 17 full time orchestras in America to a part-time ensemble with fewer players making 41% less.
I might be expected to be someone who would shriek about how terrible this is. But while it certainly would be a loss to the city in some way, as far back as 2008, in an article I would strongly encourage you to read entitled “The Decline of the Midwest Cultural Institution,” I actually suggested that the city consider downgrading the orchestra myself. And this coming from a guy who is passionate about classical music, if much more opera than symphony oriented.
A top quality, full time orchestra is a huge mouth to feed financially. Some cities like Cleveland, which has a world-renowned orchestra, derive considerable branding benefits from their orchestra. But Indy’s orchestra, despite its high quality, doesn’t generate those branding benefits. Its orchestra basically functions as a local ensemble. It isn’t doing recordings, winning Grammys or doing much touring. The question is, should Indy continue to spend that much on what’s effectively a local orchestra, when they could have a decent part time orchestra for probably half the money or less? I’m not sure the status quo is a good use of civic funds.
Obviously the situation for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra looks to be a huge loss for the community. It is the one local arts organization where Indianapolis is legitimately comparable to America’s best. Once eviscerated, it’s very unlikely the ISO will ever be rebuilt.
But unlike say Chicago, which can afford to operate basically everything at world class levels, smaller cities have to make choices. And Indianapolis has not been afraid of making those choices. Many have pounded the city for pumping billions into sports while ignoring the arts. It’s certainly valid to make that complaint, but I think the city has considered the matter and simply decided to put down its marker on sports. That’s where they think their success has come from, where they’ve gotten good bang for the buck, and where they are going to make their stand, for good or ill. Art, by contrast, is not the hill the city has decided it wants to live or die on. I think the city’s leadership is comfortable with that, and the fallout from where they’ve chosen to put their chips. (Certainly there’s been no major effort to intervene as other arts organizations have folded, moved to the suburbs, or cut back, so I’m not expecting much now). The market will judge if Indy has made the right move to pile so many chips on sports in the future, but clearly in the past it seems to have paid off. So why wouldn’t the city choose to keep betting on its winning horse?
The other thing Indy has been willing to do is prune assets. Every city out there has some variation of a strategy around “building on assets.” But saying something is an asset is just another way of talking about “the stuff we did yesterday.” The real question isn’t just what previous generations did. It’s what this generation is doing for the future.
Also, legacy assets like the ISO don’t sustain themselves on their own. They require continued investment by the community just to maintain. You can end up pumping so much money into propping up legacy assets that you’ve got nothing left to build anything new. Many cities would have been well advised to cut loose legacy assets or economic clusters long ago. As it is, too many wait until manifest unsustainability forces their hand, meaning little can be salvaged. (In the case of the ISO, had it taken decisive action five or so years ago, it would have been left in much stronger position as it would not have drained its endowment so badly).
Indy hasn’t been afraid to let the past go. It used to have a pro tennis tournament, but let it go under rather than pour money into it. They decided they couldn’t be a top site in that sport and renovating the stadium wasn’t a useful expense. The real estate would be better used for other purposes. Similarly, someone commented (I assume it’s accurate) that for the first time in forever Indy didn’t host any Olympic trials. Even staying focused on sports generally, they’ve been willing to evolve where they are going and drop things that no longer make sense. This is portfolio rationalization at its best.
I could give further examples, but I think this willingness to prune is actually a sign of health. That doesn’t mean losses aren’t painful, or that every decision proves to be right, but attempting to hold on to the past forever is a part of the disease that has killed far too many places.
The Changing of the Guard
But while I think the ISO downgrading may ultimately be the right move for the city, it does illustrate a sort of changing of the guard or economic progression that has happened.
Midwest arts organizations have in many cases struggled as their cities have struggled economically. Even in relatively well off Indy, the fact that the ISO is one of only 17 full time orchestras tells of a time when an even more robust city punched above its class.
Today, as the ISO prepares for a fall, five hours south in Nashville there’s a community whose arts profile is rising. That city just stumped for a brand new performing arts center home for their symphony, have put a major focus on upgrading its quality, and actually took home Grammys for their effort. Dallas just spent something like a billion dollars on a performing arts complex. The cultural life of the emerging cities of the South may still trail their northern peers in some ways, but it’s clear which way the trend lines are pointing. A lot of the Frost Belt cultural infrastructure is stagnant or in decline, while Sun Belt boomtowns have money to spend to better themselves across the board.
This is where economics has consequences. As those cities improve their cultural and quality of life offerings, they’ll become only more attractive to high end talent. Assuming they don’t purchase improved quality at the expense of the business friendly, low tax policies that have brought them growth – and thus far they haven’t – this will only serve to strengthen them.
Whether arts cause economic growth or are merely correlated with it, either way you still want lots of art in your town. The rising arts profile of the South is a parallel to its economic rise.
Even closer to home in Indy, north suburban Carmel just built a $150 million concert hall, and multiple theaters, one of which lured the Indianapolis Civic Theater, the oldest community theater in the United States. Whether these sizable investments, which have left the city in debt, are desirable can be debated. But they do illustrate the changes that result as the center of gravity of people, businesses, and incomes shift to the suburbs. It isn’t just about rooftops. Suburbanization affects everything ultimately.
So while I can never imagine Carmel displacing central Indy as the intellectual and cultural heart of the region, certainly now there is a more multi-polar world than ever before.
Having said all that, there are clearly serious leadership problems at the symphony. This is not all a result of outside structural forces. Money woes were apparent long ago, but nothing was done to address them. The previous music director was forced out by management, which now itself is gone. The CEO slot is empty, as are other senior posts, leaving a management vacuum.
The board itself has been operating in secret. The orchestra downgrade would have been presented as a fait accompli (which it probably still is) had there not been leaks to the press. There was absolutely no community discussion whatsoever about this, which is completely unacceptable for an organization that routinely solicits donations from the public at large. I think you’d have to judge the orchestra board as having failed in its basic duties.
Had the ISO been fortunate enough to have stronger leadership, perhaps it never would have come to these straits.
Also, while as I said, it’s fine for the community to choose sports over the opera, it’s odd how little support the orchestra has received from the civic elite. A couple years back the orchestra launched a fundraising campaign designed to boost the endowment by $100 million. The local papers reported that this was being co-led by Jim Irsay (owner of the Colts) and Herb Simon (owner of the Pacers), the two richest men in town, who were called “Indy’s billionaires.”
Yet according to the IBJ the fundraising campaign fizzled after garnering only $12 million in pledges. You have two billionaires leading your campaign, either of whom could afford to write a $12 million check each and not miss the money, and that’s all you get?
This is bound to stir quite a bit of conversation, as both of those billionaires have been the recipients of enormous public subsidies. It was the taxpayers of metro Indy who literally made Irsay a billionaire by building him a fabulous $750 million stadium with arguably a more lucrative lease than any team other than the Bengals. Simon’s Pacers recently started pulling in about $10 million a year in special city support (beyond what they already received) after they threatened to leave town if their deal wasn’t renegotiated.
Even at $12 million apiece for the ISO, Irsay and Simon would have been far ahead financially, as far as their dealings with their home town go.
Former Mayor Bill Hudnut wrote in his memoirs of the time in the 1980s when the Pacers were going to fold or leave town. He begged the Simon brothers to save the team by buying it, and reported that Melvin Simon’s response was, “Well, I’ve got to do it, don’t I?’”
How times change. Not just in Indianapolis, but across America. It used to be – and I’m talking as recently as the early 1990s here, not ancient history – that the local business and community elite could be counted on, when it mattered, to put money into their cities. Today, they are much more likely to be taking it out.
About three years ago I did an R&D project that was a concept strategy for Indianapolis. One of my 25 year goals was to create “5+ new local billionaires.” If I were creating that report today, I’d strike that line. As is becoming increasingly clear in America at both the national and local level, billionaires are a luxury few communities can afford to indulge in.