2012-06-14

How A Young Entrepreneur Is Transforming Downtown Vegas (Not The One You've Read About)

A certain former Zappos CEO might get a lot of press for his plan to revitalize parts of the City of Sin, but Alex Epstein and the El Cortez hotel are also changing the neighborhood by making it younger, supporting the arts, and giving back to the community.

Much has been made of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, in which he’s throwing $350 million of his own money (yes, you read that number right) into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas in advance of moving his 1,200 employees to the neighborhood next year. Even in a gambling town, that kind of money can make a real difference, especially when the neighborhood in question is the moribund territory that used to be the heart of Nevada’s biggest city, before the sprawl, before the suburbs, before the Strip.

But not all change has to come from billionaire outsiders. One block east of the Fremont Street Experience—the five-block stretch of casinos and souvenir shops covered in a garish LED canopy that encompasses "downtown Vegas" in the minds of most tourists—stands the El Cortez Hotel and Casino, a neighborhood institution that recently celebrated its 70th anniversary. In 2008, owner Jackie Gaughan sold his shares to younger partner Kenny Epstein, turning over the keys after 45 years. In that transition arrived one of the biggest catalysts in the rebirth of downtown Las Vegas: Kenny’s daughter, Alex.

"I went to Columbia, thinking I was gonna be a doctor," she says. "In the middle of it I decided I wanted to learn about art, and languages, and I went to Paris, and it was wonderful, and then I had like a crisis and I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with my life?’" After graduation, she made herself miserable prepping for the MCAT, "because I have a hard time quitting things," she says. "But I didn’t have an alternative plan. My parents said, ‘Come back to Vegas. You can work at the hotel, learn the family business, and in three months we’ll reevaluate, and you can do whatever you want." So Alex Epstein came home.

She did odd jobs around the casino (she even worked in the cage for a time) but the turning point came when she got the chance to oversee renovations on the Ogden House motel, a decrepit rectangle out back that the El Cortez was using as an overflow property. "It hadn’t been changed since the mid-‘70s," Epstein says. "That scene in Casino where Sharon Stone dies a really sad, depressing, filthy, lonely death? That was shot in the hallway of the Ogden House." Walk into the Cabana Suites, as the property is now called, and you’d never know it: Epstein worked with the designer and contractor to create a space whose crisp decor rivals the best boutique hotels in town. That project "was the first time I felt committed and totally passionate about anything I’d been doing," she says. "It was one of those serendipitous moments where I didn’t want my father to be right all along—I didn’t want to give him that satisfaction—but it’s weird when you realize you’re doing something that feels right."

Inspired, Epstein stayed at the El Cortez, becoming the casino’s executive vice president and its direct connection to the burgeoning downtown Vegas community. The first time she took a stand in a board meeting was in favor of leasing an abandoned medical center across the street to house Emergency Arts, a creative co-op with a coffeehouse at street level and a warren of artist studios in the former exam rooms above. "They said, ‘All right, if it needs to happen, then you go make it happen.’ I kind of got an education in being a landlord," Epstein chuckles. "But it has taken off way more than any of us could imagine. It’s become a community centerpiece, and everyone that comes downtown passes through it at some point. It changed the daytime landscape."

She opened the El Cortez parking lot to Vegas StrEATS (a regular food truck gathering), sponsors and hosts events during First Friday (the city’s monthly art and music festival), and was instrumental in the founding of Downtown Cares, a philanthropic initiative that rallied 200 people to overhaul a local senior center last fall and has its eyes set on renovating the courtyard of a local public school at the end of June. "Historically, the [casino-owning] corporations in Las Vegas have always been very charitable," Epstein says. "We don’t have as many cash resources to be philanthropic in that way, but we’re really engaged in the community, and what we lack in funds we more than make up for in hard work and dedication. Downtown and East Fremont get a lot of attention in the press, but half a mile away there’s these neighborhoods that are not getting the same care. We wanted to give back to them."

As the neighborhood comes back to life, Epstein has also been a central figure in transforming the El Cortez itself into a clubhouse for next-gen Vegas without alienating the casino’s core constituency: older locals looking for a good gamble at a good value. She hired a full-time social media director, and dreamed up a design competition to redecorate the El Cortez tower guest rooms using local talent and materials; the hotel’s old cocktail lounge has been renovated as The Parlour, featuring top-shelf mixology and musical acts, and the walls of its new steakhouse prominently feature downtown artists. Change is a balancing act, but Epstein is navigating it with poise. After all, she learned from the best. "Jackie Gaughan’s mantra was always ‘What’s good for downtown is good for the El Cortez,’" she says. "That’s really how we continue to do business. For me, it’s easy to say that it’s authentic and unique, but obviously I’m biased. When we have people who keep coming back and saying the same thing, it validates it a little bit."

This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.

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6 Comments

  • Linda_atamian

    Thank you, Alex, for your wonderful work. You deserve every cudo you receive.
    Linda Jacobs Atamian
    West Palm Beach, FL

  • AdaPia

    Very inspiring for many reasons - personal triumph over uncertainty with a life direction, not doing what is expected of you and finding your true passions, a win for the arts and the community, and for young female entrepreneurs and leaders. 

  • sjdonnal

    Comments expressed by some readers regarding this young woman seem to suggest her
    success has been due solely to her "connections".  This appears to be a kind of discrim-
    ination, that one's place of birth is a predictor for future success.  From an early age Alex
    has exhibited a well-developed work ethic combined with a passion and competitive
    nature for whatever task was at hand.  Connections in any field are meaningless without
    the willingness to set goals, work hard, and develop the talent necessary to achieving
    those goals.  I applaud this young entrepeneur not only for the level of success she has 
    achieved to date but for the inspiration she is and will continue to be to others who dare
    to dream, no matter their place of birth. 

  • Preet

    @Mr Connected. I appreciate and understand your comments and agree that many people with no connections work hard to make success happen. I also agree that success is not solely determined by connections. However, if you actually read my comment properly I was not begrudging Alex and quite clearly stated that she was doing brilliant work.  However, on sites such as Fast Company and other entrepreneurial news sites I notice that many articles focus on successful individuals who had a significant advantage in connections and funding from the off. I would merely like fair representation of success stories with more coverage of individuals like you. Congratulations on your success and may it contine.

  • Preet

    I think that the projects discussed in this piece are brilliant and highlight the benefits of connecting various elements of the community and niches in social enterprise. However, it would be nice to read about someone that has undertaken similar ventures who didn't have the immediate connections and access to resources such as Alex. She is doing excellent work, however the bottom line is that her father's connections enabled her to have access to resources that just wouldn't be available to other people.

  • Mr. Connected

    Having watched the El Co make these changes over the years, I can attest to the fact that they are on the right track.  I have stayed in Cabana suites and they are wonderful.  As to the point of connections, don't begrudge her.  Having connections, and using connections wisely are two different things.  The worlds of commerce, philanthropy and politics is built upon nothing but connections.  Why else would President Obama have a swanky fund raiser at Sarah Jessica Parkers?  Do we deride him for using his connections?  Nope. When I arrived in my now home city, I had a freshly minted AA degree, just 700 dollars, didn't know anyone in town, and slept in an old Toyota van for two months.  Twelve years later, I am the owner of fast growing advertising agency, have made millions, given away hundreds of thousands, and made many, many influential connections.  So success is less about the connections you may have, and more about who you are as a person, and how hard you choose to work.  If you're not successful, it's not because you don't have connections, it's because you're lazy.