Does Reno have an image problem?

Or do we just think we do?

Bottom photo, left, Doug Erwin, Matthew Schultz, Mark Curtis. Top photo, left, Ben Rogers, Natasha Bourlin, and Larry DeVincenzi. Right-hand photo, Clark Demeritt and Brad Bynum.

Bottom photo, left, Doug Erwin, Matthew Schultz, Mark Curtis. Top photo, left, Ben Rogers, Natasha Bourlin, and Larry DeVincenzi. Right-hand photo, Clark Demeritt and Brad Bynum.

Photo/Eric Marks

The question, “Does Reno have an image problem?” doesn't necessarily imply that yes, we Renoites do have an image problem, or we wouldn't even worry about it. Sometimes we might think we have a problem when we really don't. And why should we even care if we have an image problem? The RN&R got some smart people from different corners of our community—the business, arts and marketing worlds—and got the conversation rolling. This roundtable conversation transcription has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

RN&R: Does Reno have an image problem?

Matthew Schultz (executive director of The Generator artists' space and lead artist for the Pier Group): Yes, very much so. It’s interesting when you look at artists and art communities, most people from other communities don’t expect what’s happening here to be happening here. It’s because when you move through Reno, when you’re traveling here, you move through the I-80 corridor. You never get out to the old Southwest. You never get out to see the Holland Project. You never get out to see the beauties of the city or the artistic ventures the city is pushing forward. I think it’s mostly because for such a long time we have been portrayed as little Vegas, and this divorce and marriage capital. It’s very hard for the national dialogue to shift from that. I’m not sure if it’s much of a problem—our comedic reputation as the place that gets kicked around in the movies, I’m not sure that hurts us so much. We get a level of attention that cities our size across the nation don’t get.

Larry DeVincenzi (partner, Biggest Little Group advertising and marketing company): I don’t disagree with that. The question that I have is, when you ask that question, to whom are you referring? When you say, Does Reno have an image problem? Among the media? Among our citizens? Among the general public? I personally don’t think we have an image problem. I think we have a problem accepting our image. As much as we would like to sanitize that and make it look a certain way for certain audiences, it may or may not be who we are. And we’re always trying to make excuses for who we are or we get upset when the Muppets tear us down. I thought that was hilarious, and it was an opportunity to leverage ourselves against the Muppets that we missed.

RN&R: But people have that kind of knee-jerk reaction. Why is that?

Natasha Bourlin (partner, with Biggest Little Group): It's a feeling of shame sometimes, in the past, especially we who grew up here, when you're sitting on a plane, and you're talking to the guy next to you. “Where are you from?” Um, [hides face] Tahoe or something, and you shift your head. Or you say, Reno, and depending on where you are in the world, doesn't really matter actually, they say, “Oh, by Vegas?” “No, nowhere near Vegas actually.” … It's almost like this inherent shame that a lot of us that grew up here feel because of those blows, because of that ridicule, because of being perceived by the world as Vegas' little stepsister or something like that. We needed to incite that pride that we should feel for living in the amazing that we do. We don't like being defined by other entities outside of our community as well.

Doug Erwin (VP of entrepreneurship, Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, curator of TEDx Reno): I totally agree with that. I think we have to stop making excuses for who we are. On the flipside of that, there is an image problem. I see it on the business side all the time. People either don't know who we are, have some negative image of us, or think we're right next to Vegas. That has tangible benefits when you're talking about recruiting companies and getting people to move here. If we want to bring in high-quality jobs and grow that, we do need to transform our image to some degree. I think that means getting clear with our DNA and owning it. There's lots of companies in Austin, and Austin is “Keep Austin Weird.” So I don't think we have to sanitize it, but there is a reality that a lot of places around the world, or America, perceive us through some sort of negative lens.

Schultz:It doesn't help that the casinos seem to drive our image more than anything else. They're the primary advertiser and the primary marketer. They're the ones that are pushing more people to come into the community, theoretically. I mean, directly pushing. There are a lot of other reasons why people come, but they're writing that media message. And casinos aren't great writers of a media message. Especially in Reno, it's, “Oh, you're too broke to go to Vegas, come to Reno.” Fuck that. Reno is a rad town. We have everything you'd want—if you're one of the weirdos.

Ben Rogers (local author and engineer): But it was the casinos that initially gave us that prominence, probably undeservedly. We're the biggest little city because of the casinos, so we became a city that got more attention than it deserves for its size, and has always had these extra things for its size. But, the casinos are sort of dwindling. It's like a wildfire that went through, and now these new species have to come up from the ashes left behind from the casino industry fading away. But that's what originally gave this town a bigger impact than it otherwise would have had. You can be on a plane in Spain and say, “I'm from Reno,” and they will say “It's by Vegas,” but they'll also say “Biggest Little City.” They know that around the world. That industry gave us our imprint. And now it's ebbing, and we need to be the flowers that come up after the wildfire.

Mark Curtis (semi-retired advertising agency executive and co-founder of Artown): I think you can really boil all this down to perception and reality. The world thinks we're a joke. We're not a joke. Anybody, especially [Erwin] recruiting different companies to come here, it's an incredibly difficult story to tell. … If they have been here, they get it. If you go to Google and look at the images of Reno on Google, you won't find the city that we love. You'll find a bunch of garbage. In fact, half the images, you won't understand what they are. It's a Margarita. It's a spare tire. It's a map of some mine. It's stuff that doesn't matter much. There's no university, there's no arts, there's no museum. There's no sense of who this town is and where we're going. There's a huge perception and reality chasm for Reno.

Rogers:For a long time, I didn't want that overcome because I wanted it kept as a secret. Part of what makes this town great is that it is only 300,000 people, and you can get across town in 10 minutes in your car. It's a small town still. Do you really want the whole world to move here and have it be a 2-million-person town? Then it'll have all the same problems that the big towns have, and it won't be the thing that we love about Reno anymore.

Clark Demeritt (music director at Holland Project): I don't think Reno has an image problem at all. Like you were saying, being on a plane and saying, “I'm from Reno.” I would never—this is just my personal experience—I say, “Yeah, I'm from Reno,” and the response is always, “You're from Reno? That's awesome! I love to go to Reno! The thrift stores are great! This is great!” I think the outside perception helps, like being a little Vegas. They come here expecting it to be a little Vegas, and they have 10 times the amount of fun. Vegas sucks, because it is a rich Vegas. That's why Vegas sucks. You have to go down there, and you have to spend $20 at a table. Even on the gambling side, I think we have it a lot better. Especially in my realm, it's a huge leg up being in Reno, and the perception that we have. I've never tried to get a big business to come down here, but I think we have that image, too. In my head, when I think I want to start a business somewhere, I want to start it in Reno because my perception of Reno is that it's the place to start a business. Taxes are more lax. The real problem is that Renoites beat up on Reno, and when people from out of town come here, they love it. Maybe this is a bad example, but I just hosted people from Detroit last night, and I was telling them, “Man, I want to check out Detroit right now, you're getting this reputation as like an art mecca right now. It's cheap there, and people are coming in and doing this stuff.” And they're like, “Man, we feel the same way about Reno. You guys are mythic in our head. We can come out and have a good time and all this cool stuff is going on.” I think it's great. If you have this big image—I like San Francisco, but it's got all this stuff behind it, and it's just a disappointment. There's no all-ages movement, there's no house shows. They have this image that it's this big place, and it's just a letdown. And here we have it golden. It's just great.

Schultz:You hit on something else. There's a generational difference about how Reno is perceived. Someone in their 60s has a very traditional view of Reno as kind of this dirty place you went to get a divorce for cheap or to go gambling or get married, but as you get to younger, especially Clark, your generation, you're pretty stoked on it. Brad and [my] generation is kind of right at this—I can only speak for me, but I think you're in a similar situation. You're here by choice. You're stoked to be here, and you're happy to be here. I get asked by a lot of people, what are you doing in Reno? Why aren't you in Oakland? Why would I be in Oakland? This is something that's really cool, and this is a hard media narrative to write, but there are three cities in the states right now that are doing some really interesting things, especially when it comes to arts and culture, and that's Oakland, Detroit and Reno.

Demeritt:That's the thing about all three of those places. Detroit, you can go there and get a whole building for like $20,000, a whole multi-story building where you can do any kind of arts stuff you want. For me that's rad. I want to go to Detroit so bad and play a show and do stuff there. I know there's some dangerous stuff, too …

Schultz: But we don't have any of the danger though. I run an art space very similar to American Steel [Studios in Oakland]. At American Steel, you take everything out of your car. You lock your cars. You check on it every two hours. You know that if you work at American Steel for a month, you're going to have your window broken. I don't lock my car at the Generator. Well, I guess I might have to start now, once that is published.

Bourlin:That's interesting. It's almost like you have to be economically decimated. But you have to be willing to change also. That's one thing I think we have over Vegas. Vegas was also economically decimated, but maybe they weren't visionary enough to see other opportunities. … They were economically decimated, but they kept the focus on the casino industry. Whereas here we knew we had to reinvent.

Erwin:I think our community came together, unlike Vegas, where you have some big factions. We're still small. … I would say we're actually on a tipping point, though. I am fully hopeful—and expect—Tesla to come. I think that—it may be a watershed event, I don't think any one thing will transform everything. But, from a business perspective, that is the most sought after project in the United States right now. If they decide to come to Reno, then they must know something that the rest of the world doesn't.

RN&R: What might appeal to bands and artists who want to come here might be different than what might appeal to businesses. Are those two different audiences or are they the same?

Schultz: They're two different audiences.

DeVincenzi: But they're both going to boil down to, how's your school system? People are going to come here and live here, and they're going to want affordable places to live and a great lifestyle.

Demeritt: From the arts perspective, they totally cross. It's not exactly the same, but there's definitely a center spot of the Venn diagram of having arts and all that stuff here. If you just have the tax breaks and the business perks, nobody's going to want to live here.

Curtis: I think we have to be careful about comparing ourselves to other places, like San Francisco or Vegas. We are not those places. Vegas was very successful in figuring out what it was and what it wanted to be, and it's not just gaming. They're now the biggest, baddest shopping and restaurant city in the world. Forget gaming. They are bouncing back. And that's something that we've always had trouble doing is figuring out not what we don't want to be, but what we are. San Francisco knows what it wants to be, and they may have issues, but they're successful. And the property values are back. … Reno needs to figure out what we are, what are schools are going to do, because we've got to educate our kids better than we're doing. Our schools don't perform very well.

DeVincenzi: The thing that's here that has re-surged is the arts. Reno has a great arts culture and a great arts community. Artown started that and now it's really growing. It's these grass-roots young organizations that are really awesome for the future. This is stuff that we should be celebrating.

Curtis: That's taken a long time to germinate. In the '60s there was nothing like that.

Erwin: We have all this great stuff. And we all live here ,and we all know that. But the biggest voices is still driven by the dying industry, all the money going to the RSCVA is still the biggest voice in the community. It does seem like there's one large voice controlling the conversation.

DeVincenzi: The experience of going to a casino has changed as well over the years. It used to be more of a formal place where you'd get dressed up. As it was everywhere, you'd get dressed up to go shopping downtown. That's all gone. People don't go shopping downtown anymore. There's no driving force downtown other than the casinos. This is just my opinion, but over the years they've become a little sloppier, and the streets aren't as clean as they could be and should be, and some of the lights are out here and there because of the recession, and that makes it difficult for them to keep up appearances, so people leave. I think people are afraid to go back downtown in Reno now. There's a lot of fear walking around down there now, from gangs to being panhandled. It's a scary place down there now.

Demeritt: I actually disagree. I go downtown every night and bring people from out of town there. And Reno is one of the places I've never felt frightened in. I could be downtown at 5 a.m.

DeVincenzi: I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about the couple that comes up once a year from Fresno. The older couple. The folks who had a history here, and they've seen this transition over time.

Demeritt: I'm sorry to compare to other places, but if you're walking around downtown Oakland, downtown Oakland is completely dead.

DeVincenzi: That's not designed to be a destination though. It's place where people work and then go home. It's a different model. It's like apples and oranges.

Curtis: I think that's true and not true. That's what so great about Midtown. California Avenue tried to do this, but it didn't happen. It happened organically in Midtown because of real estate costs and because that's where the young entrepreneurs went because you had a combination of imagination and resources. If you've been to Albuquerque, it's like Central Avenue. There's all kinds of streets that become that organically. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of businesses go under and come back and change It's going to take 20 or 30 years, but it has happened so fast already. There are downtowns, like Gaslamp Square and Midtown here, that you do want to go downtown at night, and you want action and activity.

Demeritt: Midtown is right next to downtown. So you can go have the seedy experience or you can go to Chapel, which is this nice, polished place. But even if downtown is a tiny bit seedy, I feel no danger there.

Curtis: People older than you do, though. People in our 40s and 60s do see danger and desolation.

Demeritt: We have a friend, Steve Cook, who came from England. And he thinks Reno is fantastic. But he said he'd never been in a town that was so concerned with its image before. There are certain factions that are like, adventure spot, that's what we're going to be. Or, we're going to be this arts mecca. Or, we're going to be a business town. But I think just letting it be a little more is important.

Erwin: From a business perspective, I think it's a natural place to be. We have a primary industry and a couple of predominant things that have been the controlling force and dictated our growth strategy and all that. But they're dying. We're saying “Who are we?” again. Whether that's an image problem or not, it's very natural as a community to be asking that. We do have some image problems, just because people don't understand.

Curtis: When Britt was younger we used to get into these huge arguments when the iPod was born. And my point of view was that this was really brilliant advertising for a great product and her thing was “I hate the advertising, the product is great.” And we would argue into the night. From my perspective, I thought you can't have great advertising without a great product. That goes to Reno. Forget the image thing. Let's start out with what you build the image on. Let's just figure out what the iPod is.