Voices: Bill O’Driscoll | Post-recession economic engine humming ahead
October 24, 2016
The recession is fading fast in the Reno-Sparks rearview mirror, at least in key data points that reflect a potential prolonged wave of prosperity for the region.
Headlines have already proclaimed new flights to such coveted markets as New York City, new gaming operators such as Station Casinos coming to town, and a new lease on life set for the rubble that was Park Lane Mall.
Now comes hard proof to back it all up: Unemployment, whose needle once soared to nearly 14 percent, has, as of August, plummeted to 4.9 percent, the first month under 5 percent since 2009, according to a state report.
The report shows overall job growth of 5.4 percent across the Reno-Sparks metropolitan area, including Storey County, almost twice the statewide pace and a stark turnaround from negative growth just a half-decade ago.
Nowhere is the employment turnaround more telling than in the Washoe-Storey warehousing sector, where job growth reached 14.5 percent from a year earlier.
A key driver is the mammoth Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center just over the Washoe-Storey line 17 miles east of Sparks. That's home to the under-construction Tesla Motors battery gigafactory and other already-established mega-warehouse-distribution centers.
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There are other job sectors, too, in growth mode. Leisure-hospitality, which includes hotel-casinos, saw a 2.7 percent year-over-year rise in job growth. And the construction sector, which led the region's last boom a decade ago, saw a 7.9 percent jump.
What a turnaround, given the state of affairs in 2011 when the hangover from the heady days of 2.5 percent unemployment and a roaring housing market in the early to mid-2000s had Reno-Sparks reeling.
The roller coaster ride so far in the 21st century reflects the historic nature of commerce in northern Nevada. In short, business in these parts is a half-century-long story of ebb and flow.
Retail snoozed for decades in the safe confines of downtown Reno before Shoppers Square opened in 1964 and then — more important — Park Lane Mall in 1967 as the hip place to shop. A decade later, Meadowood Mall topped them both. More recently, the Sparks Marina and The Summit helped up the ante before Park Lane closed and the Great Recession brought on retail winter.
So, too, for gaming. Casinos were content with life downtown through the '60s, but after Bill Harrah opened his hotel tower in 1969, the game was on for expansion, with loads of lodging, beyond. Witness the MGM Grand (now the Grand Sierra Resort), Peppermill, Atlantis and, in Sparks, the Nugget.
A similar unfolding occurred with the warehouse-distribution community. It hummed along quietly for decades after passage of state freeport laws in 1949 and 1951. Then by century's end came the big boys: Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart and others, all well-oiled with state-of-the-art logistics systems and swayed by northern Nevada's strategic location and easy access to transportation links.
Who knows what might follow Elon Musk now that his factory for making Tesla car batteries, at 10 million square feet the biggest building of them all by far, is going up.
But already, there's more riding this current wave given recent developments:
A new fifth Meadowood anchor store, Dick's Sporting Goods, is opening as well as West Elm in the renovated old post office downtown. Even Park Lane is ready for reincarnation. Razed since 2009 with only its parking lot light poles still standing, owners have closed escrow on a planned development promising a mix of retail, residential and office. It's being touted as in synch with its upstart neighbor up Virginia Street, the Midtown district, which is itself an ongoing rejuvenation of that aging corridor south of the Truckee River.
The Carano family and their company, Eldorado Resorts Inc., co-builders of the 35-story Silver Legacy Resort Casino downtown opened in 1995, are again betting on the city's core with an announced $50 million in upgrades and other improvements at their Eldorado, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus properties.
South of downtown, Station Casinos, which pioneered the concept of neighborhood gambling in Las Vegas, has announced plans for a casino across Virginia Street from the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Switch and Apple are building mammoth data centers east of Reno-Sparks that will complement the growth at TRI and the entire Interstate 80 east corridor. And ongoing parcel-by-parcel, block-by-block renovation of downtown is slowly bringing new life to old facades. JetBlue and other airlines are adding nonstop flights to New York City, Atlanta, Mexico and Southern California, helping to lift the region's destination profile. Longer range, the University of Nevada, Reno envisions expansion southward to the edge of downtown Reno.
The current wave, it seems, has legs. For now, at least, there's no ebb in sight.
Bill O'Driscoll is an award-winning communications professional and story-teller deeply rooted to Reno and northern Nevada.