An Economy of Change: Reno Then and Now
By now, it’s common knowledge that Reno is expecting a whole lot of change in the next few years. The truth is though that I’ve already seen a huge amount of change in the Biggest Little City since first visiting in the 1970s. After doing a little historical digging, it turns out that change has always been a major factor in the Great Basin where Reno now sits. From communities and population to economic drivers, the area’s resilience is built on change.
Here’s what we know: Paleo-Indians first inhabited the region, followed by the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes. Next Spanish explorers and American trappers discovered the area, then came the cattle ranchers in the mid-1800s. The silver Comstock happened in 1859 along with the discovery of gold, (Point of interest: I recently learned that Nevada is still the third-largest gold producer in the world, after South Africa and Australia, and that in 2005 Nevada produced about 7% of the world's gold supply).
In 1864, Nevada became the 36th state in the Union under Abraham Lincoln. The extension of the railroad to Reno in 1872 helped the town grow and it became the principal settlement on the transcontinental railroad between Sacramento and Salt Lake City. The next economic boost after silver and gold was the legalization of open gambling in Reno in 1931. Now 75 years later, the casino era is waning, so Reno is turning its back on casino tourism as an economic driver and looking toward a future as a tech and manufacturing hub for everything from drones to car batteries.
Nevada’s friendly business climate and low corporate taxes has drawn tech and other companies to Reno, but it’s also the states low cost, “clean” energy that is creating a draw. Nevada, and Reno in particular, has some of the largest geothermal and solar resources in the country. Tech companies like Apple and Tesla have plans to power their facilities with renewable energy, making Reno a nice fit, and Apple has already developed a solar farm just outside Reno. The area may be used to big changes at an incremental rate, what makes the current change environment different is that it’s happening faster than ever.
I grew up in Northstar and Squaw Valley in the 70s and 80s, and back then Reno had the feel of a place that was stuck in time with no “there” there. In fact, I rarely went to Reno unless I had a doctor appointment or something that required the services I couldn’t find in town. So it’s come as a surprise to me that the words, “I absolutely love this city” now flow so freely from my lips! What I love most is the nonstop sun, the big blue sky and the desert mountain vista to the east and the treed mountain views to the west. There is this cowboy-meets-hip feel in Reno that I just love. The rodeo comes to town, there are fun places to line dance, people still ride their horses through my neighborhood, and at the same time you can also find amazing restaurants, great art, lattes with lovely designs not made by Starbucks, and some really good concerts.
Lately, I find myself wondering about the future of Reno, and how well the city will be able to keep up with this rate of change. During 2014, 34 companies relocated to the area. Nearly 4,200 jobs were created, bringing unemployment down to 6.4 percent, a big drop from 2011’s high of 14.2 percent. How will the City deal with the large influx of people and the demands on its infrastructure, services and housing? Reno’s schools are over capacity as it is now, and I have noticed that traffic seems to get worse almost daily, (I never said there weren’t a few drawbacks).
My hope for Reno is that it figures out how to be a model for infill development and smart growth. Integrating quality housing into our City Center and making sure we stop sprawl and mall development would help immensely. Mixed-use, where housing is integrated with retail, commercial, schools, etc., just as has been done in Europe for hundreds of years, would be one way to ensure that Reno does not become over-burdened with traffic and pollution. Creating beautiful architecture and walkability within midtown and downtown as well as in neighborhood pockets would really help Reno evolve into a world-class city.
It has the “bones”, now it just needs the leadership to demand that we grow our city properly. We want a city where the built environment can match the majesty of perhaps the one part of Reno that has remained unchanged: the surrounding natural environment that has been here for thousands of years.