What a remarkable run: Harrah’s Reno on its way out By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports January 29, 2020 at 7:00 pm RENO – Harrah’s Reno is still very much alive, but as I walk through it, I can’t help but feel the presence of ghosts. Not just the spirit of the property’s legendary namesake, so important to the development of the gaming industry and now more than four decades deceased. In the evolution of American gaming culture, Bill Harrah represented the appearance of Modern Casino Man. The name is synonymous with a well-run joint. I wander a bit and look at the wall of faces of showroom stars past who for decades kept Harrah’s hopping and Reno on the map. From out of the past, there’s Kay Starr, the Mills Brothers, Tony Martin, Danny Thomas, and Rose Marie. A little closer, and there’s Sonny & Cher, Glen Campbell, Don Rickles, and Jerry Lewis. And a few more from your old Trivial Pursuit game: Ed Ames, Don Adams, John Davidson, Norm Crosby, and Connie Stevens. And, yes, the truly great Debbie Reynolds, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson. Downtown Reno All those and Merle Haggard, too, played Harrah’s Reno in its heyday. Of course, we can’t forget that the hippest cat to play Harrah’s was the owner’s party pal Sammy Davis Jr. As we know, thanks to the scoop reporting of Howard Stutz in The Nevada Independent and the heart-felt reminiscence of Ken Adams in CDC Gaming Reports, those days are rapidly filling the rear-view mirror with the recent announcement that Harrah’s Reno was being sold by Caesars Entertainment Corp. and VICI Properties Inc. for a mere $50 million to CAI Investments with a plan to eventually convert the downtown property into a non-gaming hotel and mixed-use development smack right in the heart of Reno’s traditional casino district. With that transition, the Harrah’s name will be gone from Northern Nevada for the first time in 83 years. Of such things are ghost stories made. But let’s keep walking. Who can forget Harrah’s amazing automobile collection? It was something to see, a reason to walked through the door. And the hook emulated by others, including on the Las Vegas Strip by the late Ralph Engelstad at the Imperial Palace. It doesn’t take a team of MBAs to surmise that Harrah’s Reno was a little like the apparitions from showrooms past. Harrah’s went through a series of expansions and suffered from the predictable design challenges that accompany trying to do more on the same real estate footprint. Even with that, it’s still only a 900-room hotel with a 40,000-square-foot casino. That’s not big even by Reno standards. It’s not hard to see how it became eclipsed by neighboring casinos and changing times and tastes. That doesn’t make it a rusted relic, by any stretch. You can see operators have been thoughtful in maintaining its signature Harrah’s Steak House, a real keeper, with a super-sized buffet and a name brand Hash House A Go Go to replace its traditional cafe. In the Year of the Rat, the Joy Luck Noodle Bar is good and provides a nice a nod to its Asian marketing. Even with its “Party on the Plaza” entertainment series and Sapphire Lounge nightclub, it’s hard to keep up with the latest trends. And, in fairness, it’s not easy to shine brightly through downtown Reno’s dinginess. In the wake of the booming legalized sports betting market, it’s hard not to notice that its sports book is anything but super. Maybe it has something to do with the death of Kobe Bryant earlier in the day, but the place has a depressing feel and about many players nodding off as cashing tickets. For a reminder of the power of the Harrah’s brand, 17 casinos in 11 states still bear his name. That’s real staying power that’s lasted nearly a century in an industry bursting with changing technology and forever in search of the next thrill ride and definition of cool. Harrah’s Reno at its best did what well run casino resorts can do: become memory machines for families and friends. And although it rarely pays to wax too nostalgic about a gaming establishment, even one named after a legend, an 83-year run amounts to a genuine success in any business. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.