LAS VEGAS » The imposing concrete building, a place now for the recorder of deeds and the seekers of zoning variances, will soon play unlikely host to a company that lists "a little weirdness" among its top 10 values and employs a greeter in the lobby offering free hugs to everyone. Need a nap? Grab a jail cell. And on the wish list of renovations is an indoor ski slope and a pet whale.
In most places, this might sound a little odd, but this is the kind of city where nearby attractions include an urban zip line over a bustling pedestrian street and a hotel pool filled with sharks and whose mayor never fails to bring along a few showgirls on any out-of-town visit.
The company, Zappos, an online shoe retailer with a reputation for eccentricity (its unofficial symbol is a mullet haircut: "business in the front, party in the back"), plans to move into Las Vegas’ soon-to-be vacated city hall and make the complex its headquarters. City officials, who have obsessed for years about revitalizing downtown, say the move will radically alter the life of the city’s core, changing a struggling corner of town into a hive of activity. The $25 million deal will help pay for a newer and grander city hall a few blocks away, another one of the mayor’s pet projects to usher the city into the next decade.
Here, the notion of the company’s moving into the municipal building is hardly seen as bizarre. Instead, the news that Zappos is planning to move from its current headquarters in the city’s suburbs is seen as something akin to salvation for a place that has had more than its share of economics blows over the last several years.
City officials expect that the more than 1,000 employees from the website — many of them young, single and presumably happy to spread around some disposable income — will vastly improve the atmosphere in a place that is pockmarked with vacant storefronts and where locals still warn visitors to be careful at night. Instead of liquor stores, there could be doggy day care.
"Zappos’ moving here is giant for us, just a total change in history," said Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, who has long been known for his over-the-top statements. "It legitimates us. Maybe legitimates is not the right word, but it validates what this community could provide."
For years, Goodman has made reviving downtown his top priority — his relentless cheerleading might border on obsession. It is a just a 10-minute drive to the more glittery and famous strip, where high-end resorts are still opening despite the recession. But downtown Vegas is a world away. Here, vintage neon signs line the sidewalks as a way to glamorize the Vegas that was and, it is implied, will be.
The signs of success in recent years have included a couple of upscale bars and a cafe that doubles as an artists’ space. More recently a hookah bar with Middle Eastern-themed decor opened where a pawn shop used to be. (Goodman took joy in explaining, "That’s hookah, not hookers. We’ve had enough of that around here.")
And while many have hailed the openings as clear evidence of rejuvenation, on a recent Thursday night many of the bars were nearly empty. But Zappos employees are known for their penchant for parties. Days after the move was announced, Tony Hsieh, the chief executive officer of the company, took all of the employees for happy hour, trotting through many of the bars that will eventually be their neighbors.
"Right now, all we have here is Claim Jumper," said Mig Pascual, standing in the lobby of Zappos’ headquarters in suburban Henderson. From the outside, the current corporate space is anything but remarkable — a couple of squat buildings inside an office park.
"It would be great to be someplace where we’re not the most exciting place around," Pascual said.
Inside, though, Zappos headquarters looks more like a playground than an office. Every cubicle is festooned with knick-knacks — fringe hangs from the fans, and giant foam balls and hula hoops sit in several spots. For the last several years, the building has become a pilgrimage spot for shoe fanatics and managers from other companies who are eager to take in the office culture. The volume of visitors has ticked up significantly since Hsieh published his first book earlier this year, "Delivering Happiness."
Even when the company first relocated to the Las Vegas area in 2003, Hsieh said, he knew he wanted to look elsewhere, someplace that would easily allow employees to play just steps away from work. In his book, Hsieh recalls when the company was based in the San Francisco apartment building where he also helped open a restaurant and many of his employees lived.
"I want to be in an area where everyone feels like they can hang out all the time and where there’s not a huge distinction between working and playing," Hsieh said.
Many of the condo buildings that were built here at the height of the real estate boom are virtually empty, but developers are now counting on Zappos employees to move in en masse.
"They’ll move in and they’ll demand services — dry cleaning, restaurants, anything you can think of," said Andrew B. Donner, the owner of several properties downtown, including the long-vacant Lady Luck hotel, which he plans to renovate. "This place will be radically different in a couple of years."