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Reno-vating a Classic

Northern Nevada City Reshuffles its Deck for a New Generation of Visitors

By Aleza Freeman

It’s a chilly winter morning in downtown Reno, and the Riverwalk District begins to stir. As the sun breaks the horizon, a fisherman stands, up to his knees, in the cold, bubbling Truckee River, widely casting his rod. Further along the rocky shore, a family plays and laughs, taking full advantage of the relative calm in the Truckee River Whitewater Park at Wingfield. Other early risers walk their dogs past steel-sculptures (and a sleeping homeless man) on the City Plaza.

Above the river, in a vain attempt to beat traffic into the city, cars crawl across the “new” Virginia Street Bridge. Their slow progress might allow the occupants to glimpse, out of the corner of their eye, the ghosts of the countless women who, taking advantage of the state’s lax divorce laws, walked straight from Reno’s courthouse to the old Virginia Street Bridge a block away to cast their now inconsequential wedding rings into the water below—an act memorialized by Marilyn Monroe in the 1961 film The Misfits.

That the old “bridge of sighs” was entirely replaced during an $18 million overhaul in 2016, is just one of the outward symbols of a city trying to reinvent itself and show the world it is still a place worth visiting. Chef Mark Estee watched it all happen from the window of his home in The Palladio, a luxury high-rise overlooking downtown.

The restauranteur moved from Truckee, CA to Reno in 2011 “because I fell in love with a spot by the river” and to open the neighborhood restaurant Campo at The Palladio. He was there during the last days of the “Wedding Ring Bridge”… but not much else. At the time, there were no other restaurants, bars, or any cultural activities, and even at the resort-casinos a few blocks away, tourism was on the decline.

“We were in the throes of the recession here,” recalls Estee, “especially in downtown.”

Now, though, Reno is gaining national attention for rebranding and reinvesting hundreds of millions of dollars into citywide redevelopment. Unique shops, farm-to-table eateries, trendy bars, and public art have popped up along the two-mile river walk, as well as in other districts like Midtown (south of the river) and the newly dubbed 4th Street Brewery District.

“In the last 5 to 8 years, we’ve seen a real resurgence in new businesses coming to town,” says the chef, who has since sold Campo and opened several other Reno restaurants, including his farm-to-table Liberty Food & Wine Exchange at the river and Chez Louie at the Nevada Museum of Art.

The resort-casinos are starting to thrive again, and new jobs are hitting the area. Tech giants like Apple, Tesla, Switch, and Google have put down roots, inviting employee growth while a variety of smaller tech companies have opened on the self-dubbed “Startup Row” along First Street.

The Biggest Little City in the World

Restaurants and tech start-ups are only a small part of the city’s repositioning. Wandering further down Virginia Street is the newly redubbed Arch District, named in honor of the iconic arch, which proudly proclaims Reno as “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Built originally in 1926 (adding the moniker in ‘29), the arch has become the symbol of the city. Even though it’s been moved around several times, it has maintained its current position on Lake Street since 1995 and continues to welcome guests to the tourist corridor at the heart of downtown.

The atmosphere in the Arch area mingles old-school charm with a touch of seediness and a splash of youthful energy. As if it understands the inevitable comparisons with Las Vegas, the area feels a little bit Fremont Street Experience (without a canopy) mixed with a little bit 18b Arts District, but then adds a little bit of something entirely different. A few outside walls are covered with commissioned murals while art from Burning Man, the “annual week-long experiment in temporary community.” which takes place two hours away in a temporary city erected in the Black Rock desert, dots the sidewalks.

“It’s always going to have that kind of old Reno part to it,” says Estee, insisting that it’s important to hold onto the past when you look to the future. In other words, cheap $3.99 casino breakfasts and locally-farmed cuisine can peacefully co-exist.

“Our job is to kind of balance that seedy Reno weird kind of funk and vibe with the cooler, more like-minded growth, where venture capitalists and the grunge kind of meet,” he adds. “There are a lot of smart people making sure we keep Reno cool. We don’t want to gentrify too much.” Estee also mentions the redevelopment is not without its growing pains, such as a shortage in affordable housing, but he acknowledges that the city is taking steps to address it.

Some downtown resorts (and old motels) have been torn down over the years. Others like Harrah’s, Club Cal Neva, Peppermill Reno, Atlantis Casino Resort, and Grand Sierra Resort, are spread out nearby, away from the core, making major upgrades.

“There was a period of 4-5 years [where companies] weren’t able to reinvest into their properties, and that had an impact on guest experience,” says Ben McDonald, senior communications manager for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor’s Authority. “Now that the national economy has rebounded, hotels have put in $500 or 600 million over the last six years or so, and the product is much improved. You’re going to get some high-quality accommodations, which wasn’t necessarily true 20 or 30 years ago.”

In 2018, three interconnected properties—the Eldorado Resort Casino, Circus-Circus Reno and The Silver Legacy Resort Casino—were rebranded as one mega-resort: The Row. Together, there’s 25 restaurants, 22 bars and lounges, 11 nightspots, over 4,000 rooms and suites, a brand new 21,000 square foot spa, and 227,000 square feet of casino space. Not to mention the fact that The Eldorado at The Row is home to The Brew Brothers, the country’s first craft brewery inside a casino. Since opening in the mid-1990s, the brewery is credited with catalyzing Reno’s burgeoning beer movement. There are now 12 breweries within a 3-mile radius.

Among downtown’s newer properties is the non-gaming Whitney Peak Hotel, featuring the world’s largest artificial outdoor climbing wall, a verified Guinness record. Holding pride of place right next to the arch itself, The Whitney Peak replaced Fitzgerald’s Reno in 2014, offering locals and visitors an independent, pet-friendly hotel with the Cargo Concert Hall and an indoor BaseCamp Climbing Gym to compliment the outside wall.

The Great Outdoors

Away from the arch and the center of town, the concrete canyons of the city quickly give way to more outdoorsy recreations. The Reno Aces, an Arizona Diamondback Triple-A affiliate, play nearby at the Greater Nevada Field and, just over a mile away, is The University of Nevada, Reno, home to the Wolf Pack.

In 1931, when gambling was legalized in Nevada, Reno dominated the country’s gaming scene, but it was quickly outshone by the massive growth of Las Vegas. But Reno has something their rival to the south doesn’t: Accommodating nature. According to McDonald, most consumers come to the Reno-Sparks area to head outdoors. It didn’t take long for the city to carve its niche in the tourism industry.

“They want to go to an event, they want to go to a lake, they want to go for a hike, they want to go kayaking, they want to go biking, they want to go skiing, they want to go to the art museum,” McDonald explains. “You can party pretty hard here if you choose to. If you choose not to, it doesn’t have to be so in your face.”

The country’s largest alpine lake, Lake Tahoe, is located 37 miles to the south and the sandy beaches of the Truckee River-fed Pyramid Lake are 39 miles to the northeast.

“You have a Pristine lake, a mountainous forest rolling down along the Truckee River into the Truckee Meadows with green trees and wild grasses,” McDonald says, describing the drive between downtown and the Incline Village portion of Lake Tahoe. Had you gone ten minutes in another direction, you’d have found yourself “in the middle of the desert.”

Outdoor experiences around the area differ widely by season, from boating on Lake Tahoe in the summertime to hitting the slopes in the winter. There are tons of festivals and events by the Riverwalk year-round, including the monthlong Reno Artown festival in July.

A self-professed Gen-Xer, McDonald relocated from Las Vegas to Reno after college because he was attracted to the region’s indoor and outdoor experiences.

“If I wanted to get into trouble, I could,” he says, “but I could escape if I wanted to.”

Estee, meanwhile, found Reno charming but never predicted the growth to come.

“It’s still early,” Estee says. “We’re just getting started.”

 

The Road to Reno

The flight from Las Vegas to Reno is relatively inexpensive, fast, and simple (well, as simple as it can be, these days). The Reno-Tahoe International Airport is small, sleek, and simple to navigate. You could realistically get off your plane, grab your checked bag, and head out the door in less than 20 minutes.

Driving, however, takes a bit longer. The fastest route from Las Vegas (primarily along U.S. 95) takes nearly 8 hours. Though it’s often described as long and boring, there’s a lot of state history, hidden gems, and haunted hot spots along the way, if you know where to look.

Here are a few towns to explore on the road to Reno.

Rhyolite

After driving 116 miles north on U.S. 95 to Beatty (Nevada’s gateway to Death Valley National Park), a 10-minute detour on State Route 374 will land you in Rhyolite, the 1905 gold-mining center turned ghost town. Ruins include a well-preserved house built from beer bottles in 1906. There are 500,000 bottles of beer on those walls. The Goldwell Open Air Museum and its ghostlike statues are located at the southern entrance, near the abandoned railroad.

Goldfield

It’s hard to believe when driving past, but Goldfield was once one of Nevada’s wealthiest boomtowns and its largest city (even home to Wyatt and Virgil Earp for a year). Most of its buildings were destroyed by fire in 1923, but some remain, including Goldfield High School, Esmeralda County Courthouse, and the (supposedly) haunted Goldfield Hotel. At the southern tip of town is a bold and bizarre roadside attraction, the International Car Forest of the Last Church, which includes more than 40 uniquely painted, junked vehicles. Some are face-down in the sand, others are stacked in interesting configurations; sort of like Nevada’s version of Stonehenge.

Tonopah

Tonopah, the halfway point at 211 miles, is not only a good place to fill up on the way to Reno, but it’s also been voted one of the best places in the country for stargazing (no bright lights to impede your view). Tonopah is also home to the creepy and (again supposedly) haunted Clown Motel (located next to a haunted cemetery, of course). The motel is known internationally for its unique theme and clown memorabilia. You could stay the night there or at the recently renovated Mizpah Hotel, but that’s haunted, too. The good news: they’re friendly ghosts.

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