Reno has an evolving identity, and a changing narrative By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports November 3, 2019 at 10:00 pm Reno has always been a city that was conflicted about its identity. Lately in the local press there have been columns and articles, each portraying a different picture of the city’s identity. The president of the local development agency, Mike Kazmierski, wrote in an opinion piece in the Gazette Journal on October 17 that “while the City of Reno has invested in downtown revitalization, and we are seeing private investment increasing, our downtown remains an eyesore to visitors and residents alike.” Kazmierski was expressing a common view – that Reno’s core was, and is, an unpleasant place. Last week, in response to Kazmierski’s column, local historian Alicia Barber wrote in This is Reno, “First, there is a lot of central Reno just outside that small casino core that is lovely, functional, diverse, safe, and working just fine. To label Reno’s entire downtown an ‘eyesore’ is not only inaccurate but perpetuates the notion that downtown Reno is defined by its central casino district, a perception that the city has been trying to counter for a few decades now.” Barber’s column reflected a new and growing sense that Reno is bigger than its casino core. The city has also gained some national notice recently over its strip clubs. The city council would like them gone and has engaged in some questionable tactics in the process. The council thinks the clubs damage the city’s image. Reno is a city in transition, and its sense of self is also in transition. The old Reno was fully established and unambiguous. It had been a gambling town since the Great Depression. That Reno had a single business district, three blocks long and three blocks wide. Virginia Street was the heart of the district. An arch over Virginia Street was inscribed with “The Biggest Little City in the World.” That arch was the northern gateway. Three blocks to the south, across the Truckee River, stood the southern gateway, the Riverside Hotel. All of Reno’s casinos lined Virginia Street. That was the downtown core referenced in the columns by Kazmierski and Barber. Harold’s Club was the best known of the casinos. Harold’s Club, in many ways, was Reno, and it carried Reno’s message across the country through the installation of billboards reading “Harold’s Club or Bust” that listed the miles between that sign and Reno. Neal Cobb was quoted in a Nevada Appeal article as saying, “Harold Smith was a character, but a very smart character. As the club changed and grew, so did the city.” Harold’s Club proudly proclaimed that it was the largest casino in the world. In time, Bill Harrah opened his casino less than a block from Harold’s Club. Over the years, Harrah’s Club grew and expanded, eventually eclipsing Harold’s Club. In the 1970s and 80s, other casinos opened outside of the district: the Eldorado and Circus Circus to the north, the Peppermill and Atlantis to the south, the Sands and Gold Dust West to the west and a dozen or so more in outlying areas. Reno’s economy was a casino economy. Casinos generated the majority of the revenue in the area, paid the most taxes, and hired more people than other employers. Although the casinos drove the local economy, Reno residents were often conflicted and disliked being associated with gambling. Criticizing downtown and the casinos became a part of the city’s narrative. It was often a badge of pride to say, “I don’t go downtown, I never go into casinos.” In the mid-1990s, Indian gaming came to California. Those new casinos, added to the Indian casinos that already existed in Washington and Oregon, took a huge bite out of Reno casino revenue. Within a decade, over twenty casinos in the Reno/Sparks region closed. Employees either moved on to other industries or left Reno for more vibrant casino environments elsewhere. Downtown Reno had by that time lost its retail to shopping malls in the suburbs. It was left with dozens of vacant storefronts and very little foot traffic. It was scary and an eyesore, to say the least. Downtown Reno became the focus of public debate as politicians and business organizations searched for a solution, a magic bullet to “fix” the district. Today, the situation is different, not because of a magic bullet, but because Tesla and other high-tech companies have moved into the region and are providing employment and tax revenue and spurring further development. The areas to the north, south, east and west of the old business district have started to develop, with boutique retail, music and art venues and housing. Slowly those regions are creeping into the downtown core, shrinking it and further reducing its significance. But the community narrative has not changed with the new reality. The city’s leadership is still talking about fixing the downtown, or at least improving its public image, cleaning up the streets, attracting new business and housing. Those efforts have helped, but the only sustainable growth will be organic. Organic growth is what’s created the Mid-Town region, an area of ten blocks running south from what used to be the Riverside Hotel Casino. Its growth has come in part from the Burning Man festival held every Labor Day in the Black Desert north of Reno. Burning Man draws nearly 100,000 people, most of whom stop and shop in Reno. One of the things most of them buy is a costume; Mid-Town might be called costume town. But Mid-Town has become more than just costumes for Burning Man; it has shops, art, restaurants, pubs and housing. The same kind of organic growth is taking place on the northside of the downtown. It has taken twenty-five years, but Reno has recovered from Indian gaming. Reno still has casinos, but only three are in the former casino core; the rest are outside of the district and located closer to residential areas, and now the casinos depend on residents more than tourists, although tourism is still important. Reno gets about two million tourists a year, most of whom come for Reno’s special events, like the Reno Rodeo, Burning Man, Hot August Nights, Street Vibrations, Balloon Races, and the Reno Air Races. At one time, people even thought of calling Reno the special events capital of the country, but that is passé now. Today, Reno is much more: it is Mid-Town, the Neon Line, East Fourth Street and Wells Avenue. Reno has moved away from the downtown. The downtown does need to be cleaned up and redeveloped, but it does not define Reno any longer. No single location or industry does. The diversity that budget analysts have been saying Reno has needed for 50 years is here. It is time for the narrative to change and reflect the reality: Reno is a city growing with the 21st century.