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.