Downtown Revitalization – The Limited Role of Government

touristy alamoI wrote previously about the Downtown Project for Las Vegas NV that I think folks in my hometown should pay attention to.

I enjoyed visiting the nascent Las Vegas Downtown Project because it made me reflect on my original questions: How do cities die? And how do cities renew themselves?

I’m a ‘market-based capitalism’ guy most of the time, but I’m convinced that cities can die through the natural ‘market-based capitalism’ process when a single industry or economic monoculture sucks all of the interesting real life out of a place, as casinos have done in downtown Las Vegas, and tourism has done for downtown San Antonio. When I say ‘die’ I don’t mean the death of all profit or even a scarcity of jobs, but rather the harder-to-define but nevertheless deeply felt way in which a city ceases to be a place we would enjoy spending more than one day in.

But if economic monoculture is the cause of certain type of blight, how do we solve that? It’s quite a problem.

As a ‘market-based capitalism’ guy, I see little evidence that municipal governments are good at spurring city turn-arounds. Few local political leaders would ever block the addition of another casino in Las Vegas, or the founding of another hotel in San Antonio, and who could blame them? When you’ve got a financially successful industry in an area, municipal entities and political leaders can’t be in the habit of squelching additions to that industry.

In addition, public entities don’t seem great catalysts for city turnarounds. I trust that public entities can create ‘safer’ places. They can encourage the tear-down of blighted buildings. They can penalize rule-breaking or negligence among property owners.

But despite being filled with good people and good intentions, city governments rarely create beauty, or delight. They don’t generally have a singular vision for a human-scaled rebirth. Governments can do a good job of removing “the bad,” but are more hamstrung at trying to add “the good.”

That’s where the first-to-act civic-minded billionaire seems to come in.

To renew themselves, Las Vegas and San Antonio needed someone with both a vision and the resources to enact that vision. And then that vision and early investment needs to inspire many multiples of follow-up investment from others who can build on the catalytic actions of the first-to-act. The Pearl in San Antonio seems to have achieved that.

The Downtown Project in Las Vegas and the San Antonio Downtown by contrast are happening in parts of the city very much in the earliest stages of rebirth. Downtown boosters and haters alike can each point to evidence of the success or failure of the experiments up until this point, and neither would be completely right or wrong. To the pedestrian visitor, the monocultures still dominate, almost completely.

Container Park design, Las Vegas

The few pockets of human-scale renovation in both places seem disconnected, fragile, nascent. They all need massive follow-up investments by other entrepreneurs to make it connected and viable. But hey, I see reasons for hope, despite the odds. I’m an optimist. I mean, you have to be willing to forget the odds in order to take a trip to Las Vegas in the first place.


Please see related posts:

The Downtown Monoculture Problem

Tourism and the Some Highlights of the Las Vegas Downtown Project



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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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