Burning motel

A local man plans to turn a historic Fourth Street hotel into a hostel for Burners

“Jungle” Jim Gibson owns the Morris Hotel on Fourth Street.

“Jungle” Jim Gibson owns the Morris Hotel on Fourth Street.

Photo By Ky Plaskon

The Morris Hotel is at 400 E. Fourth St.

Crammed between train tracks, four lanes of traffic, and the red brick walls of the Morris Hotel, near Fourth Street and Valley Road, lines of homeless people drink beer in the blazing sun. A retiree with white-rimmed hipster glasses and chains draped across his hairy chest gives nearly everyone he meets a hug. He talks to one of the homeless men.

“We want to get an awning out here and we are trying to get the city to put some Porta Potties out here,” says “Jungle” Jim Gibson. He is gleeful to have bought this raunchy corner and the Morris Hotel for just over $400,000.

“You have to understand, where we are sitting right here, next to the homeless and the food center, it’s a relatively rugged area, and to turn it into a normal hotel in this area would be very, very difficult,” Gibson says. “We have an opportunity to turn it into a Burner Hotel, because in the Burner community, we embrace everybody, and we are not intimidated or worried or scared off by the homeless people that are here, and in fact, we want to help them.”

The idea is a hybrid of how local hotels cater to Burners during Burning Man and NadaDada Motel, which isn’t really a motel at all—once a year, artists occupy cheap hotels in Reno to showcase their wares. To make a permanent Burner art hotel, Gibson is enlisting the help of a panel of artists and community members, organized on the Morris Burner Hotel Facebook group.

“To put together a steering committee,” Gibson says. “So that this isn’t just me doing this. This is the community, what they need and what they want.”

So far, the ideas include outdoor greenhouses where hotel residents and homeless can grow their own food and take it next door to cook it, a rooftop garden, outdoor barbecue, artists occupying rooms, displaying art and selling it with no commission for the hotel. He also hopes to enclose the back yard on the property and put in a permanent fire performance stage.

If the Morris Burner Hotel becomes a reality, it may be the first and one and only of its kind in the world.

“We are not aware of any other Burner hotel that operates year ’round,” wrote Megan Miller, Burning Man public relations manager in an email to the Reno News & Review.

On the Burners

Gibson is a relative newcomer to the highly social Burner community. He hails from the space materials industry, and space can be a lonely place. He retired in 2011 and went to Burning Man.

“It changed my life,” he says. “When I retired as the president of my company, I could count on one hand the number of good friends I have. And now I could probably call any one of 500 people—friends, good friends. It is such an amazing community. It really is.”

The community has given him strength to undertake this Morris Burner Hotel project on Fourth.

“I think most people are afraid of the area,” he said. “I would have been afraid of it, had I not been tied to the Burner community, because it is just a perfect place for us.”

The rather ugly corner of abandoned buildings and downtrodden folk is the perfect place because artists are experts at taking things that are discarded by society and recreating them into something appealing. It’s been done in midtown, downtown and in towns nationwide. But to do it, artists need a little help from people like Gibson.

“There are an awful lot of them who are truly starving artists, and this is something that will truly help them,” Gibson says. “We are going to let them decorate the rooms, hang all their art, sell it for free, no commission. It will be a permanent art gallery for them for free.”

Gibson points out that the Morris Hotel has been a viable business continuously operating for 80 years, so there is room for experimentation.

“We are not doing this thing to get rich by any stretch,” Gibson says. “We want to pay for it. I don’t want it to be a cash drain, I don’t need that.”

He has some experience with the Burner clientele for this unconventional, socially conscious business model. He says he has held a party on his property in Minden for Burners.

“After 35 RVs left, I walked out in the field and there wasn’t even a gum wrapper on the ground. They are the cleanest, neatest, leave-no-trace people, and that is part of the reason I am doing this hotel. If this were just a normal hotel with normal people thinking, ’I am paying for a room, I don’t care if I trash it,’ I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. But the burner community is so respectful of others and their needs and wants, not only will they come in and enjoy it but they will probably dust and clean. They are that kind of a group.”

The Morris Hotel commands a little respect as a historic place in Reno. It’s across from an old train station. It might have been the first building of its kind in Reno to have sheetrock and modern wiring. The ceilings are stamped tin above hardwood floors, lit by the sun through leaded glass windows and original chandeliers. Until now, the Morris’ biggest claim to fame were some scenes in the 1994 movie Cobb. In one of the scenes, Tommy Lee Jones angrily smashed a glass against a Morris Hotel room wall over the head of a sleeping ghost writer.

A more permanent and rosy vision of the Morris is Gibson’s investment. He hopes the price of rooms will cut down on drunk driving and that the eclectic clientele will patronize the nearby ballpark. He wants to make it look good, too.

“Neon around the top of the building and maybe put neon around every window and make it a beautiful part of downtown,” he says. “You know, downtown Fourth Street here historically has been kind of rugged and it is turning around quickly.”

He says it is already wired for wi-fi, cable and inter-room communications. He plans to tear out carpets, replace the beds and make the hotel non-smoking. He says he has an army of 30 volunteers waiting to do it.

“We will work something out that gives them long-term discounts because they helped do it. We want to keep it reasonable. That is the goal, we are not going to make it into an expensive boutique hotel. It is going to be a burner hotel.”

The Morris Hotel currently has 43 rooms renting for $20 a night. But Gibson wants to quadruple the occupancy of some rooms, putting in four bunks and charge $12 each, more than doubling the income. He hopes to keep the price low with no waiting lists: “I mean, we have got 43 rooms and when we have events like Burning Man there is no question this could be filled two or three times over.”

All this isn’t likely to happen within a month.

“The only rumor is that we will be ready for Burning Man this year, and we won’t,” Gibson says.

While his purchase of the Morris only closed this month, the transformation has already begun because Gibson himself is here contemplating how to revive the Morris. “We have a long way to go, but I think it is important for us to do something for the community, not just the Burner community, but the community as a whole and the city.”