Town Meets Gown as Downtown Project Has Confab With Professors

A summit of big minds recently brought academia to Fremont East. Can the talent on Maryland Parkway help write Downtown’s next chapter?

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

The Window is as good as its name. The Downtown Project’s multipurpose space, located on the northwest corner of the Ogden apartment building, overlooks Las Vegas Boulevard, Zappos’ corporate headquarters and the Gold Spike—Zappos’ unofficial clubhouse. From here, Zappos/Downtown Project boss Tony Hsieh can master all he surveys.

On the day I paid a visit, however, the Window was a classroom. For teachers. Late last month, David Gould, an Obermann Public Scholar with the University of Iowa and the Downtown Project’s Director of Imagination, held what he called a “Faculty Summit”: He invited professors from UNLV and from his own university to meet with Downtown Project and City of Las Vegas personnel, local and Iowa-based social entrepreneurs, and most importantly, each other.

The objective of the three-day event? Well, we’re still working on that.

“This is an experiment,” Gould says. He didn’t begin with an endgame in mind, or have any grandiose notions of changing Downtown Las Vegas overnight; he only wanted to introduce some of the creative minds he knew from Iowa to some of the thinkers he’d met here in Nevada. If Tony were here—and surely he’s here somewhere—he’d say the goal is to facilitate some serendipitous collisions: Take UNLV sociology professor Michael Ian Borer, City of Las Vegas community resources manager Brian Knudsen, Turntable Health founder Zubin Damania and others, set them up in the Window and let them talk to each other about urban planning, education, building public-facing social programs and so on. It’s as simple as that.

Maybe something will come of it, says Gould, and maybe something won’t. But the most important thing to come from the Faculty Summit can’t be changed or undone: For the first time, UNLV has been invited to the Downtown Project’s corner of the Downtown revitalization party. The Window is now open, so to speak.

“You’ve got these young adults who are filled with idealism and energy, and they want to take what they’re sitting in a classroom learning and get their hands dirty—to go do something with it,” Gould says. “More than 28,000 of them are sitting five miles from here, and you wouldn’t know it.”

UNLV seems to be relishing the invitation. Eli Kaufman, a creative strategist whose consultancy firm, A Hundred Years, helped facilitate the summit, describes the first day of the meetup as one would describe an awkward middle school dance:

“At the beginning, the UNLV people sat on one side of the room, and the University of Iowa people sat on this side,” he says. “By the end of Day One, they were stumbling over each other, writing on the walls … At the end of the day, it was like a dance.”

But unlike your average school dance, no cliques got in the way of collaboration, Kaufman says.

“One of our faculty institute participants gave a lecture from one of his classes about social entrepreneurialism and how he incorporated it into his discipline. I couldn’t even tell you what his discipline is, because we checked that at the door,” Kaufman says. Both professors and administrators were in the room, but no one came dressed that way: “Everyone just came as thinkers.”

So it went—and I have to admit that even in the short time I spent at the summit, the assembled thinkers punched through my cynicism. We heard from the founders of a startup that traded concert tickets for community service. Participants went on field trips to Opportunity Village and to talk with Cirque du Soleil crew members. And Rehan Choudhry of Life Is Beautiful admitted his challenges managing the millennials on his staff, which led to a discussion of how Generation X and this latest generation can bridge their differences and work together. It was the proverbial Good Day at School.

It’s too soon to tell what will come of the summit. An invigorated Kaufman told me he planned to talk to Gould after the summit: “I’d like to challenge myself and Dave, do a sprint with this,” he says. And UNLV’s Borer seemed optimistic at the event, though as a Las Vegan will, he tempered it with caution.

“Las Vegas is really good at writing Chapter 1,” he says. “There’s been a lot of Chapter 1s written here. If this summit can help us get to Chapter 2, Chapter 3, maybe even Chapter 4, then, wow, we’ve done something really substantial.”

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