RENO, Nev. — Denise Barcomb hears it all too often.
“The most frequent thing locals say is, ‘Oh, I never go downtown,'” Barcomb says.
This is not what the owner of a downtown business — Urban
Market, a grocery store tucked on 3rd Street — wants to hear.
Yet, for years, the sheer amount of panhandlers, trash and graffiti
and complete lack of retail options has turned people away from visiting the
central core of the Biggest Little City in the World.
One wouldn't know it now, but there was a time when downtown
Reno was a vibrant retail hub — shoes, clothing, jewelry, hardware; you name it
— that bustled with shoppers. Between the daytime buyers and daylong gamblers,
the “lights were always on” in downtown Reno in more ways than one.
Barcomb is confident downtown Reno will return to its glory days, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Downtown Reno Partnership, the privately-funded, nonprofit business improvement district (BID) that was created in August 2018.
At the onset, DRP narrowed its focus on cleaning up and boosting the attractiveness and appeal of Reno's downtown BID, which encompasses 120 city blocks.
Totaling 24.9 million square feet, the BID is bounded by 1-80/9th Street to the north; Wells Avenue to the east; the Truckee River, California and Moran streets to the south; and Keystone Avenue to the west.
Since, DRP has worked on enhancing the appearance, safety and hospitality of downtown through its now 20 hired ambassadors. Dressed in blue, black and white uniforms, the trained ambassadors patrol the district in efforts, according to Partnership, “to create a cleaner, safer, friendlier environment for visitors and residents.”
It appears to be working, Barcomb says.
“As a business owner, we've had very little, if any, issues with the homeless people who are drawn to the less-than-desirable side of life and commit petty crimes,” notes Barcomb, who went on to sing the ambassadors' praises. “We've seen a tremendous amount of goodwill out on the street. They're picking up trash and cleaning things up and keeping the streets presentable.
"And the interaction between the ambassadors and the guests and visitors from out of town has been extraordinary.”
'MAKING AN EFFORT'
Landon Mack, owner of Palace Jewelry & Loan, says DRP's ambassador program “hasn't been a silver bullet,” before adding, “but it has been an improvement.”
The statistics back it up. According to DRP's 2018-2019 report, during the first eight months of the program, ambassadors removed 959 graffiti tags, collected 111 bags of trash, recovered 560 shopping carts, performed nearly 4,000 wellness checks on the homeless and had more than 34,000 instances of giving directions or engaging with visitors.
“At least somebody is making an effort to clean up downtown,” Mack says. “I want to give kudos to the ambassadors. They're out there in the miserable cold and doing the best that they can.
“I will tell you,” he adds, “it's a thousand times better than when the city ran it.”
Still, more help is needed. In fact, one of the partnership's top goals in 2020, its second full year of existence, is to hire more ambassadors, says Alex Stettinski, DRP executive director.
“When I came (to Reno), I always envisioned the number 30," Stettinski told the Northern Nevada Business View. "Thirty ambassadors, to me, is the number for this size organization and this size community.”
PIVOTING TO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Along with a continuous focus on downtown's look and feel, DRP is also shifting its attention to economic development this year, Stettinski says.
In the process, the nonprofit plans to “produce data” for property owners, developers and businesses that may be interested in coming to downtown, he says. Moreover, DRP is surveying University of Nevada, Reno students and faculty to understand “how they perceive downtown.”
The feedback is especially relevant with 1,300 students now living downtown, due to last summer's natural gas explosion in campus that forced the closure of Argenta and Nye halls. Consequently, students are living in the Circus Circus Sky Tower for the short term.
The first step toward revamping downtown? Identifying all of the vacant properties and figuring out the best use for them, says Cindy Carano, chair of the DRP board of directors.
“I'm hoping that we are able to attract some ground-floor retail or some new economy businesses,” says Carano. “The idea is to bring back the vibrancy and ‘turn the lights on.' Downtown Reno is open for business.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of recruiting businesses, Stettinski notes, is the lack of people living downtown.
According to the Environmental Systems Research Institute, downtown Reno has a population of 4,755 with a median age of nearly 51. The average household size is 1.4 and the median household income is about $21,000.
“A lot of businesses that we would like to recruit and approach, we haven't even started because we already know that we haven't reached the critical mass in order to make a retail store in this environment pencil for them," he says.
To be sure, infill residential development — from student housing to affordable housing — is in the works in downtown Reno. Not to mention, Jacobs Entertainment is in the midst of a $1 billion vision to redevelop the blighted West Fourth Street area near downtown.
But, as they say, Rome wasn't built in a day.
“It's a challenge to wait and hope residential properties are coming online quickly so that there are more people living downtown,” Stettinski says. “Because the more people living downtown, the easier it will be for us to get some more robust, interesting retail that speaks to more broad demographics.”
FINDING THE FUNDS
In terms of funding, Stettinski says the DRP receives “assessments” — an annual contribution from property owners — that fluctuate based on the property values.
Some downtown property owners, Stettinski says, confuse the assessment for a tax. As such, a minor goal of the nonprofit is to educate the property owners — and the community, in general — what it's doing and why it's doing it.
“We have to keep educating and saying it's an assessment, which is distinctly different from a tax,” he explains. “It's a special benefit just for this particular area. It's almost like you're paying into an HOA or paying your sewer fees.”
According to its annual report, DRP's budget for its first fiscal year (2018-2019) was $2.35 million, with $725,000 paid to 14 ambassadors, their manager and equipment; $725,000 paid for supplemental Reno Police officers; $500,000 paid for the management staff, operations, marketing materials and enhanced services along Virginia Street; $400,000 paid for the city of Reno staff who performed maintenances and cleaning throughout the district.
The budget for year two is still in the works, said Stettinski, though he adds that “the forecast is that it will continue to slightly go up."
To that end, Stettinski says the DRP is on track with its three-year strategic plan. However, he said dealing with the “politics” and established habits of downtown business and property owners will be an ongoing challenge.
“We need to have everyone really acknowledge and realize and see that everyone has to do their part in order to really activate the area,” he stressed.
“I'd like to see more people engaged and get involved and
put their voices forward,” she said, “and help construct this future that is
going to be great for Reno.”