In 2018, when Zachary Cage, Michael Connolly and Chris Kahl took over a tenant space at West 3rd Street in downtown Reno — which eventually became their fourth tavern, Shim’s Surplus Supplies — they quickly saw issues with some homeless and transient people. “There was a problem almost daily with stuff like drug paraphernalia, human waste and trash outside of our doors,” Cage said in an early-October phone interview with the NNBW. Three years later, Cage said the areas outside of Shim’s — and their other downtown pubs, Sierra Taphouse and Ole Bridge Pub — are much cleaner, and the number of nuisance incidents has dropped dramatically. He credits the Downtown Reno Partnership and its ambassador program for helping make that happen. Dressed in blue, black and white uniforms, the trained DRP ambassadors monitor the City of Reno’s Business Improvement District (BID), which encompasses 120 city blocks. “The ambassador program is a great program,” Cage said. “They do a good job — they’re very responsive and present. And it’s good that we have a non-forceful option in dealing with folks who are in this position. Honestly, it’s a tax on our law enforcement system to be dealing with homeless people when they should be focused on the harder criminal element.” During the DRP’s third year in operation, ambassadors removed 304 graffiti tags, collected 567 bags of trash and resolved 2,747 nuisance issues, among other statistics, according to the nonprofit’s recently released 2020-2021 annual report. “The ambassadors have made a huge difference,” said Mark Estee, owner of Liberty Food and Wine Exchange in downtown Reno. “Whether it’s just having that quintessential person to give you directions or assessing situations and calling in the proper help when needed, just having that presence here adds to our city.” Alex Stettinski, who’s been executive director of the partnership since its August 2018 inception, said he was grateful DRP was able to “weather the financial challenges” during the height of the pandemic.
Helping matters, the City of Reno reimbursed DRP for its COVID-related expenses as the nonprofit shifted into providing the homeless community and business community with COVID-19 resources in 2020. As a result, the nonprofit was able to hire four more ambassadors to grow its team to 24. “We were able to not only keep the level of our employees, but reinvest in our ambassador program and hire more,” he said. ‘IT’S NEVER ENOUGH’ Yet, more help is needed, and more work needs to be done, said Stettinski, who wants to grow the ambassador team to 30. “As a BID, we’re always in a bind,” Stettinski said. “Because we’re doing things that move the needle dramatically, and at the same time we are never there; it’s never enough. We address so much of the cleanliness issues, the homelessness issues in downtown, but there are still cleanliness and homelessness issues.” “Some business owners really express their appreciation for us being here and making a difference,” he continued. “At the same time, it’s always being questioned … ‘What are you doing here? Why are there still homeless people on West Street Plaza?’ It’s because they are human beings and have a right to be here. And it’s not the homeless people that are not wanted, it’s the conduct of certain individuals.” To be sure, Stettinski doesn’t naively think the DRP can solve homelessness, an issue that permeates cities across the country, and was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Washoe County has seen big increases in the homeless population over the past several months; according to the county’s Housing and Homeless Services dashboard, which is updated monthly, more than 1,500 people — many of whom roam the downtown area — were experiencing homelessness in September. According to the Point in Time (PIT) homeless count, which is conducted annually in January as required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1,708 people were counted in Washoe County 2021, compared to 1,231 in January 2020. As such, the DRP is using as many resources it can to help address the issue and create a cleaner, safer and more walkable downtown, Stettinski said. This is why he went to the city council earlier this year and asked them to fund a one-year pilot program to provide monitoring and increased outreach services to all six public parks within the BID’s downtown jurisdiction, plus three nearby parks.
In mid-October, city council approved the program in the amount of $159,543.80, making way for three more ambassadors to be hired. According to the city, a key component of the program is providing enhanced outreach to homeless individuals; ambassadors will provide referrals, coordinate transportation, and obtain priority assistance from the DRP’s licensed outreach staff, along with regular job duties. SERVING A NEED The DRP is 100% funded through annual fees paid by downtown property owners based on their property’s value, location and type of business. Commercial properties along Virginia Street, for example, pay the highest fee to pay for additional street cleaning and police services while homeowners and nonprofits on the edges of downtown pay the least. Estee, who is a business owner downtown, not a property owner, said he feels it’s important that the BID continues to be funded through assessment fees. “If we were asked to pay, I know we would,” Estee said. Stettinski said the assessment contributions the DRP received this past fiscal year dipped due to property values dropping amid COVID shutdowns and capacity restrictions. After all, early in the pandemic, he was worried that property owners would be against continuing to pay the assessment fee as they dealt with the financial fallout of COVID. “When council reapproved the funding mechanism last year, the majority of property owners said, ‘we’re OK with paying this; we need the BID more than ever,’” he said. “I think property owners realized that if we cut back on those services, it wouldn’t make any sense.” Stettinski pointed to the fact that the ambassadors, deemed essential workers, were still out in the street when the city was shut down to help homeless individuals navigate to services and shelters. And when the Reno Events Center downtown was turned into a temporary homeless shelter large enough to let people sleep six feet apart, the ambassadors had their hands especially full keeping downtown “balanced and clean,” he said. FINDING FUNDS To help DRP in its mission to enhance the safety and appearance of downtown, it received a number of grants in its past fiscal year. The organization received a $25,000 donation from Washoe County to purchase a van to transport people in need of services and shelter. Since July, DRP has transported nearly 100 individuals, Stettinski said. In terms of visual improvements, the DRP was awarded a $50,000 Nevada Main Street Grant, which it combined with $80,000 from its budget and gifted the money to the city to have the Reno Transportation Rail Access Corridor (ReTRAC) beautified this summer.
In June, the 18,000-square-foot stretch of dreary concrete in Downtown Reno was transformed into a vibrant ground mural named “Locomotion,” depicting abstracted Reno-themed images and symbols, such as train tracks, mountains, sagebrush and the city flag. Stettinski said the DRP is already working on the second phase of the project: adding lights. He said they have secured another $30,000 Nevada Main Street Grant and $50,000 from their beautification budget, which is going to the city to purchase hardware, LED lighting for the new shade trees planted around the plaza’s edge, as well as six 30-foot-tall spotlights that will splash light on the mural. “My goal is to have all of the lighting done before the holidays,” Stettinski said. “A big part of our work is to make the downtown environment more vibrant, friendlier, and more interesting, so people come back.” DRIVING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
With that in mind, Stettinski said the “lion’s share” of the work being done to bring more locals and visitors to downtown Reno is economic development. “If you don’t have any offerings downtown for people to have the experience that they’re looking for, they’re still not coming,” he said. This, he said, is why the DRP is providing data and resources to developers, brokers, businesses and investors looking to come downtown. The nonprofit is also in the process of a “visioning exercise” to get a better understanding from different stakeholder groups to see “what the strengths and weaknesses of downtown are and what opportunities they see.” He pointed to projects like the Reno City Center as a sign of a sea change happening downtown. The project, led by Las Vegas-based real estate group CAI Investments, is the conversion of the former Harrah’s Casino and hotel into more than 500 apartments, 150,000 square feet of office space and 78,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor. “With the developments in the pipeline, we will probably get 1,500 to 2,000 new apartments and condominiums added to downtown within the next two or three years,” he said. “And that’s a game-changer, because we will be at a place where we will reach critical mass and the retailers that we would like to come downtown will be interested in it. That’s the long-term vision that we have as the BID.”