Biggest Little Revival? Downtown Reno Partnership seeks to address homelessness and boost business
October 26, 2018
RENO, Nev. — There was a time when downtown Reno bustled with shoppers, bounding up and down Sierra and Virginia streets, savoring an array of retail offerings — jewelry stores, shoe stores, hardware stores, department stores and everything else under the Northern Nevada sun.
Those days — when swarms of shoppers outside complemented the herds of gamblers inside — are long gone now.
Just ask Scott Dunseath, owner of clothing store Reno eNVy and proprietor of the Reno Tahoe Visitors Center, both located in downtown Reno.
"At the visitors center, we repeatedly are asked, 'where is all the shopping?'" Dunseath told the NNBV. "We respond sheepishly and point out the few key locations — West Elm, the Basement, Patagonia — but there always seems to be this expectation that there should be more retail downtown."
The newly formed nonprofit, the Downtown Reno Partnership, is seeking to meet those visitors' expectations, and address many other issues plaguing the central core of the Biggest Little City.
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After all, as Kyle Rea, chief operating officer of Tolles Development Company, told the NNBV, "the state of our downtown is still a yardstick against which Reno is measured."
The Reno Downtown Partnership — the official name of the nonprofit, privately funded business improvement district (BID) created in August — encompasses 120 city blocks (24.9 million square feet), bounded by I-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.
The partnership's first initiative is to clean up and boost the attractiveness and appeal of the downtown district, Alex Stettinski, executive director, said in an interview with the NNBV.
Prior to joining the partnership, Stettinski's accomplishments include reviving the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce (where he served as executive director from 2011-15, elevating the West Hollywood's Avenues of Art & Design BID (he was a vice president with Visit West Hollywood from 2015-16), and branding a rejuvenated downtown Los Angeles.
"The No. 1 thing to revitalize an area is to make sure that it becomes clean and is safe, and is perceived as safe," Stettinski said during a mid-October interview at Hub Coffee Roasters in Reno. "So hopefully we'll accomplish that soon."
In the process, Stettinski said the nonprofit has launched a Downtown Reno Ambassadors Program. With that, 15 ambassadors — to be trained and deployed by the end of October — will be hired to provide hospitality, safety and maintenance services for the district.
"My initial goal is to really clean up downtown and make sure that the ambassadors are deployed properly," Stettinski said. "And make sure that they're visible and starting to make a difference in downtown when it comes to safety — to work closely with the police department. And make sure that they are addressing some of the homelessness issues."
To that end, Dunseath said the vagrant population is the biggest challenge that he faces as a business owner downtown.
"There are very few days where we don't have to ask a panhandler to move on down the road," said Dunseath, whose Reno eNVy store on Sierra Street between Silver Peak Brewery and the massive Antiques & Treasures store. "Some go willingly, but others are confrontational and put our employees and customers and tourists at risk. You never know what the mental state of someone is and how they are going to respond when you ask them to leave.
"Addressing the homeless, transient and vagrant population should be (the partnership's) first priority."
Niki Gross, managing director at the nearby Whitney Peak Hotel, located on North Virginia Street, agrees.
"It is a sensitive topic, but finding opportunities to improve the vagrant population and present an overall safer presence would also be a major improvement in perception for tourists," Gross said in an email to the NNBV.
Stettinski pointed to downtown's lack of vibrancy as a reason the homeless community is so pronounced. He said it's important for stakeholders to recognize that homelessness is a complex issue that can't be addressed in isolation.
He experienced this firsthand when working with business improvement districts in Los Angeles County, which has a homeless population of roughly 58,000 people, according to the L.A. Times.
In comparison, according to the latest Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless data, there are roughly 184 homeless people across Reno, Sparks and Washoe County.
"Hopefully," Stettinski said, "we can come up with solutions that includes affordable housing that needs to be created; that includes shelter space being created and opened up; that includes social programs that need to be easily available for people who need it."
Stettinski said the Village on Sage Street housing project in east Reno, which is on track to open in late November, is a prime example of what the community needs.
"It takes more people, it takes more funding, and it takes more stakeholders to be involved in this," he said. "And I think Reno will get there, I really do."
Strengthening the safety and cleanliness of downtown Reno is only one side of the complex coin, though.
"A clean and safe downtown is nothing without interesting alluring businesses to activate the area again," said Stettinski, adding that he'd like to conduct focus groups to see what the business community and residents envision for downtown commerce. "A core of a city is so crucial for a city to be successful, and it needs to be a functioning, thriving core.
"And I want to make sure that all stakeholders involved have a seat at the table and will be able to tell us this is what they envision, what they'd like to have."
Cindy Carano, president and chair of the Downtown Reno Partnership, said the organization is working with the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN) and property owners to figure out how to activate downtown.
"We're working with them to figure out what is the best use for the properties," said Carano, noting the abundance of T-shirt shops and pawn shops with retail footprints downtown. "Not to say there's no place for a T-shirt shop or a pawn shop, but that's all it could be? There has to be a better return on your investment. Our visitors need to be able to walk outdoors and walk down to the river and feel safe and interested in what they're walking by.
"Right now, there's none of that. And it's really sad."
Dunseath told the NNBV he feels other companies should follow in the footsteps of Patagonia, which has a global distribution center in West Reno and an outlet store in downtown Reno on Center Street.
"What if it was a condition that retail-based distribution companies who move to this region to take advantage of our business and tax-friendly climate have to have a brick and mortar presence in Reno, specifically downtown?" Dunseath posed. "Whether these were outlet types of stores or full retail experiences, what if this was a place that we could showcase all of these companies that do business in Northern Nevada?
"It would be a great economic story to tell and could turn downtown Reno into a shopping destination that would attract locals and visitors from all over."
That's exactly the kind of downtown Stettinski expects Reno to have within five years. He said one of biggest challenges along the way, however, will be dealing with the "politics" and "established habits" of downtown businesses and property owners.
"We have to make them understand that they could become part of an amazing vision and that they can make a difference that can last for generations," he said.
For Stettinski, though he's only been in Reno for a couple months, he sees unlimited potential in what the downtown core can provide its community and visitors alike.
"We have almost 30,000 students, all the tech startups, a great group of involved senior citizens in Reno," he said. "It's awesome. We have it. We just need to provide something that speaks to them. And I think in five years we can get there."