Reno Just Wants to Be Normal

The city has been a haven for gold rushers, divorce-seekers and gamblers. Now it's making a bid for the pleasant city market.

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Throughout its history, Reno, Nevada, has paid the price for sticking with one thing too long.

The city first came into existence as a place for gold seekers to rest, eat and restock their supplies, only to see gold mining dry up. Then, it became known as the nation’s divorce capital, as well as for its brothels. As states loosened their divorce laws, and sexual mores changed, Reno shifted its emphasis to casino gambling, only to see gaming embraced all over the country.

Now, there’s a movement afoot among local business leaders to remake Reno as less of a mini-Las Vegas and more of a livable city that attracts well-educated, sophisticated residents. "We’ve always relied on gaming and mining. Those days are gone. Gaming is not the industry that’s going to take us to the future," says Bret Simmons, associate professor of management at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The stakes are high. When Nevada’s economy fell apart late last decade, Reno’s unemployment rate doubled and has remained stubbornly above 10 percent since 2009 (although it's at least started inching down lately, to 11.5 percent last month). Its housing market imploded well before the rest of the country, and vacant houses remain easy to spot even in the most expensive neighborhoods.

Already there are pockets emerging of what could be the next Reno. One is near the ballpark of Minor League Baseball's Aces, which replaced a rundown motel, vacant lot and fire station. Another entertainment district, with theaters, bars and restaurants, has sprung up near the Truckee River, not far from the historic courthouse where thousands of quickie divorces were granted in Reno’s dissolution heyday.

One spot along the river is home to Campo, a year-old restaurant run by Mark Estee, one of the region’s best-known chefs. For years, Estee cooked in the Lake Tahoe region, but came regularly to Reno for supplies and to fly out of its airport.

About five years ago, he says, he began noticing a local food scene developing that echoed those he’d seen in northern California. "My style of food is ingredient-driven and if people understand ingredients and where they come from, they’ll understand what we do here," he says.

Facing the expense of renovations, and not sure how quickly success would come, Estee negotiated a deal with his landlord allowing him to pay rent based on a percentage of his proceeds. "It puts us more like a partnership," Estee says. "They want me to do well, and the better I do, the more they get."

He needn’t have worried. Campo, which features wood oven pizzas generously laden with ingredients and house-made pastas with unusual sauces, has customers all day and evening. Patrons are welcome to pop in for just an espresso if they don’t want a full meal. "You don’t want people looking in the window and thinking it’s a museum," Estee says.

Estee’s success coincides with the development of Midtown Reno, a neighborhood a few blocks from downtown. It's anchored by an old-style hardware store and includes vintage clothing shops, restaurants and The Hub Coffee Company, a tiny coffee bar that's become a community-gathering place.


Images from Midtown Reno, courtesy: Downtown Makeover

Nearby, Reno’s 5,000-member Great Basin Community Food Co-op, selling products from farmers throughout the region, recently moved into a new 8,000-square-foot facility. Meanwhile, the area’s sizeable Vietnamese community means pho shops are everywhere (including one south of town that also serves fresh donuts).

Beyond the retail scene lies another asset: the 18,000-student University of Nevada, Reno. It sits uphill from downtown, with manicured lawns, classroom buildings wired with the latest technology, and an open plaza by the student union that abounds with food stands.

Although there are town and gown partnerships, Simmons says the city and the university can be working much more closely in crafting Reno’s future. "Any town that has a university in it, that’s money in the bank," he says.

Reno has another asset that money can’t buy: its proximity to the recreation area around breathtaking Lake Tahoe, which can be reached by car in less than an hour. All around the lake, where technology billionaires have vacation homes, are hiking trails, beaches, boating and skiing, plus dozens more restaurants and shops.

That closeness was one reason why native Californian Liz Christoffersen settled in Reno more than a decade ago. "It’s a huge attraction," says Christoffersen, a consultant who works with global luxury lifestyle brands including hotels, private jets and yachts, and travels constantly. Though she regularly visits Europe, Asia and other parts of the United States, Christoffersen says her heart beats faster when she is on a flight headed back to Reno.

The glorious scenery can’t sugar coat what the recession has done to the city. The outskirts of Reno are ringed with empty shopping plazas and for-lease signs on an endless amount of property. For every bustling store, like Whole Foods and the sprawling TJ Maxx/Home Goods, there seems to be a vacant one awaiting the economic recovery.

Even Reno’s most upscale places have spots for rent, like Mayberry Landing, a collection of eateries, wine shop, coffee bar and Pilates studio, and The Summit, an outdoor mall on the road to Carson City.

The stubbornly high unemployment rate has caused some people here to warn Reno is in danger of becoming a western Detroit – dependent far too long on a single industry and unable to diversify in time to save its economy. "Business as usual will not get it done," Simmons says. "We cannot continue as a state to make no changes and think we will get something different."

Estee thinks Reno’s future lies in stressing all of its assets, including casinos, the arts, the food scene, recreation, the university and affordable housing. "It’s a partnership of the whole city coming together," the chef says. "We want people to understand that Reno is more than just gaming."

Photo credit: Karin Hildebrand Lau/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times.