10/19/2012 09:54 am ET

What Happens in Brooklyn Moves to Vegas

The mountain-lodge gathering felt like an annual shareholders’ meeting, with department heads offering optimistic forecasts backed by charts, graphs and photos. Except that the 50 or so attendees wore jeans and sneakers and sat at round tables in a faux log cabin 7,700 feet above sea level and at least 20 degrees cooler than the Nevada desert below. And what they were discussing was not a corporation but a very unusual project.

Tony Hsieh, the 38-year-old chief executive of Zappos, had called the 24-hour retreat as a debriefing of sorts. It was almost a year into the Downtown Project, his $350 million urban experiment to build “the most community-focused large city in the world” in downtown Las Vegas — an area dominated by bare lots and check-cashing stores about an hour’s drive away. An icebreaker kicked off the event with whoops and hollers as each attendee stood up to share personal anecdotes or facts, like “I’ve tried chicken-fried steak in more than 30 states.” One woman announced that she had been a salsa dancing champion. Hsieh (pronounced shay) shared how to write his last name in Morse code.

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