Making Sparks fly
The Rail City has changed so much in recent years that some visitors might not recognize it
Wendi Rawson sets a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc before me. It’s Friday evening, and I’m with friends around a fire table on the patio of Engine 8 Urban Winery in Sparks’ Victorian Square. It’s a quintessentially urban experience. In Sparks.
“It’s funny, some people still don’t know the theater is open,” Wendi tells me on another day during our interview. “A lot of people didn’t realize this was all here.”
She gestures to the new development surrounding her, from the 14-screen Galaxy Theatre to the apartment buildings; to Golden Rotisserie, the Mexican casual dining restaurant; to Piñon Bottle, the popular bottle shop. And then, of course, there’s Sparks’ first winery, Engine 8, which Wendi and Mike Rawson opened in April. They sell about a dozen varietals, made on the premises. It’s quite a departure from the biker bars and smoke-filled casinos for which this area was known.
“People are absolutely flabbergasted when they come down—it’s changed so much they don’t even recognize it,” she said.
Indeed, if you’ve only visited Victorian Square for events like the Nugget Rib Cook-off or Hot August Nights, it is virtually unrecognizable. The area can now rightfully be called “downtown Sparks”—a name that, until now, even longtime Sparks residents wouldn’t have confidently assigned it.
This roughly six-block area off Victorian Avenue—between Pyramid Highway and 15th Street—has always felt like an area in transition, with more parking lots than planned district.
“This downtown area was designated the first redevelopment district in Nevada in the late 1970s,” explained Armando Ornelas, City of Sparks’ assistant community services director. “Per state law, within this designated area, you can actually capture property tax revenues for use in your redevelopment plan.”
Since then, the city has fielded numerous plans for Victorian Square, some more viable than others. “Initially, the goal was to make it an entertainment-oriented district, even with things like a Ferris wheel,” Ornelas said.
In the early 2000s, the Sparks Redevelopment Agency took a different tack, deciding on a mixed-use district, with a combination of residential properties and walkability to retail, food and drink. Local developer Trammel Crow proposed a condominium project near the Century Theatre, but the recession halted that idea.
“About five years ago, I got a call out of the blue from [State Senator] Julia Ratti, who was then a Sparks councilmember, asking if I could meet with her,” said Doug Hunter, director of operations for Reno-based Silverwing Development. “We met by the fountain—her, then-councilmember [now Mayor] Ron Smith, Silverwing President J. Witt and me. They said, ’Hey, would you be willing to look at redeveloping downtown Sparks?’ Now here we are, five years later. We’ve developed three completed communities, with two more under construction and four more planned. All told, it’s about 1,500 individual residential units, somewhere around 100,000 square feet of retail space and a $300 million investment.”
First came a lengthy site-assembly process in which owners of small, isolated parcels—the city, the Nugget, Silverwing and others—swapped to form contiguous parcels on which to build major projects. The Nugget Casino Resort’s new owner, Marnell Gaming, purchased the former Bourbon Square Casino site, designating it the future home of its new outdoor amphitheater.
Witt and Hunter set their sights on multifamily housing, and, in September 2015, Silverwing broke ground on its first project, Fountainhouse Apartments.
Phase 1, completed in 2017, includes 220 units; phase 2 is 16 high-end units situated above the commercial spaces in front of the new Galaxy Theatre. The Bridges, a two-building residential development connected by a footbridge over C Street, features 194 units above 12,500 square feet of retail space, including Piñon Bottle, which opened in June.
Ground has already been broken on two more developments. The public parking garage behind Victorian Avenue’s older retail businesses will become The Deco, a 10-story residential development featuring first-floor public parking, three floors of residential parking and 209 residential units. The Atrium is a six-story, 132-unit residence at Victorian and 15th.
Additionally, California-based LandCap Investment Partners converted the old Silver Club Hotel property into Square One, a six-story, 100-unit, multifamily residence.
Silverwing’s proposed future developments include two high-rise, mixed-use buildings south of the movie theater plaza, where currently chain-link fences surround surface parking lots. Facing a center plaza, they would feature five to six stories dedicated to retail, residential parking and apartments.
Though the roster of commercial residents is still in the making, Hunter said CaiE Dimsum Café will open this summer near Golden Rotisserie.
“We’re in negotiations with other restaurants and businesses I can’t talk about,” he said, “but we foresee other establishments, maybe Italian food, maybe sports bars.”
Ideally, it would also include a coffee business situated between Golden Rotisserie and the movie theater.
Hunter said that the vision for what he calls “The New Victorian Square” is a live-work-play district. He muses about possibly straightening out C Street and reimagines the plaza as a community gathering place the likes of which you find in other major urban areas—perhaps including a new water feature. Ornelas said that the old fountain, which for years drew children to play on hot summer days, became too costly to maintain and impractical in the midst of construction and had to be permanently closed.
“To Silverwing’s credit, they get urbanism,” Ornelas said. “J. Witt, the president, also understands the idea that in a redevelopment effort like this, the whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. That it needs to ultimately work together and magnify in impact.”
The Nugget Event Center is one of many investments Marnell Gaming has made since purchasing the distressed Nugget property in 2016. In addition to overhauling its rooms, casino, convention center and restaurants, it opened the event center with a bang by hosting country musician Toby Keith to a packed house in June. The 8,500-seat amphitheater will host 10 events per year, all to end at 10 p.m.
“The event center comes with a rating capacity of 135,000 pounds, which means we can do about any show out there in terms of production, and that amount of seats enables us to go out and get top-name entertainment,” said Mark Sterbens, Nugget general manager and senior vice president. “We’ve enjoyed a great working relationship with the City of Sparks and appreciate their support. I think they thought we were crazy when we wanted to put an amphitheater in the middle of downtown, but they were great to work with, and I think it’s going to work out great for the city.”
Sterbens said the downtown redevelopment enhances guests’ experiences at the Nugget. Doug Hunter believes it enhances residents’ experience, too.
“I went to the concert,” Hunter said. “I came down here early, supported a few of the local businesses, and the event itself was fantastic. The day after the show, people were calling the communities trying to rent properties that had views of the show. It was so fun looking up in the stands, seeing folks up on their patios enjoying the show. I couldn’t have been happier.”
The Rawsons are happy, too. The redevelopment plan enabled the couple to open the business they’d dreamed of.
“Originally, we were looking to build a wine bar in Sparks, specifically because there were no wine establishments in Sparks,” Wendi said. With their sights set originally on the Galleria, they met resistance from anchor stores in the area about having “a bar” nearby. But Silverwing’s Witt expressed interest immediately, offered the couple the opportunity to go beyond wine bar to an actual winery and unknowingly placed the business in a meaningful spot.
“Our son was born on the Fourth of July, so he turned three the year Star Spangled Sparks was having its second-annual event,” Rawson said. “We made it a tradition. We were always down here on what was that grassy area that was right here in front of the theater, and our kids would play in the fountain. Now our family has a piece of this property.”
The Rawsons began bottling their own wines this summer and plan to add pizza to their menu of charcuterie and desserts. Meanwhile, they’ve begun partnering with nearby businesses to host various events, like an escape room in partnership with Legends’ business Key & Code, and discounts on Wednesday, when the theater runs classic movies. Engine 8’s expansive location means space is available to rent for parties and meetings.
“It’s been really nice, getting to know residents,” Wendi said. “We have some regulars. We’re excited about the growth. It’s just going to keep getting bigger. We’re at the beginning stages of this transition, which is cool to see.”
Longtime Sparks business Great Basin Brewing Co., on the eastern side of Victorian Square, has watched the redevelopment efforts with interest since first opening in 1993. Brewer Tom Young also owes his business to it.
“The legislature had passed a law saying that [a brewery business] had to be located in a redevelopment district,” Young recalled. “At the time, the City of Reno had a redevelopment district, but they didn’t understand the brewery concept and weren’t excited about it. But the Sparks folks at that time were welcoming.”
Great Basin also now has two Reno locations in addition to the Sparks flagship, but Young emphasizes that he’s maintained a great relationship with the City of Sparks. “I think people don’t always give Sparks the credit it deserves,” he said. “I don’t think we tell our story well enough.”
Great Basin Brewing recently was acquired by Mammoth Brewing Co., but the existing Great Basin locations are not expected to close anytime soon, and Young will remain on as brewmaster. “We’re excited about the development, that it’s going to bring new life to downtown Sparks,” he said.
The most common complaints heard by Ornelas, Hunter and Young are about parking. The garage near Great Basin currently being transformed into The Deco closed about a year ago, and the brewery’s own back lot contains just 38 spaces.
Projected numbers vary, but when The Deco is completed, the first floor of that garage will reopen to provide about 80 to 100 more spaces.
“The garage by the theater has plenty of parking, but that’s about four blocks away,” Young said. “[S]ome people are not excited about walking.”
City approval for the Nugget Event Center was contingent on demonstrating sufficient parking. Despite public opinion to the contrary, the Nugget’s garage, expansive surface lots to the west and the newly remodeled, 702-spot garage beside the movie theater were deemed more than sufficient to accommodate both the event center and various events.
It’s good for cities to have limited parking in their downtown cores, according to Ornelas and Hunter. It’s an indicator that the area is thriving. Like in any major city, residents should account for parking, and prepare to walk a bit or take public transportation or rideshare.
“When the redevelopment agency acquired these properties, they were never intended to be parking lots,” Ornelas said. “There’s a higher and better use, and that certainly wouldn’t be a responsible use of tax revenues.”
… You can see Sparks
Out of the roughly $1 million the City of Sparks budget dedicated to the redevelopment, $150,000 was earmarked for public art in Victorian Square. M. Francine Burge, special events supervisor for the City of Sparks, began working on a plan.
“I developed an arts and culture advisory committee, and we put together our own strategic plan for what we’d do with that $150,000,” Burge said. “I think everyone assumed I would just take that money, buy a piece of art, and call it done. But the construction still isn’t done, and it won’t be for a few years. It’s hard to gauge what it will look like, so I wanted to use this time doing research.”
Burge reached out to Shoshana Zeldner, who was, at the time, Nevada Arts Council arts development director. (Today, she’s special events program manager for the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of the Arts.)
“I want to see more national funding for the arts in Nevada—we don’t have that many projects funded in the state by the National Endowment for the Arts,” Zeldner said. “So I suggested we pursue the NEA Our Town grant, which is intended for creative placemaking.”
Creative placemaking, according to the NEA, integrates “arts, culture and design activities into efforts that strengthen communities by advancing local economic, physical, and/or social outcomes.”
They were awarded $50,000, which would fund efforts to gather input from the public and use the input to create a plan for how and where art would be integrated into the redeveloped downtown.
Burge’s early research helped her to identify Shelly Willis, a seasoned, innovative public art planning consultant with experience in creative placemaking. Willis was hired to work with the city to gather the input needed to plan public art that would both reflect downtown Sparks’ existing personality and transform it in a positive way. So, if the goal is creative placemaking, why not be creative about gathering that input? Why not use art to help plan the art? The idea became a community engagement campaign, Together We See Sparks, funded by the NEA grant and in-kind donations.
“We wanted to do something fun and get people really engaged with art so that it’s not just a survey,” Burge said. “It’s going to get their hands a little dirty and find out how they really feel about their city.”
Burge’s committee put together a call for artists to submit proposals for how they would solicit community input. The two local artists who were selected were Jen Charboneau of Reno and Paul Fenkell of Sparks, each receiving $4,000. Charboneau’s project, “Sparks Seen Zine,” will be a mobile community art bike where people are invited to share their stories and experiences of Sparks while the artist draws gesture portraits of participants. Fenkell’s project, “The Big Easel,” is a shade structure providing a place for people to write and draw their thoughts on living in Sparks and the Truckee Meadows. The artists’ projects already have begun appearing at downtown events this summer. Additionally, Sparks residents can visit the campaign website, TogetherSparks.com, and share their input through a survey.
The campaign continues through October 15, at which point all the input will be analyzed and a public art plan for Victorian Square will be developed. It may result in sculptures, murals, benches, water features, lighting design, bike racks or something else altogether that reflects Sparks’ personality and potential.
“Sparks is beloved,” said Willis of the feedback she’s already heard in her time working on the campaign. “Almost everyone across the board says they want to maintain the hometown feeling. They want to grow smartly, efficiently and to keep it family oriented. They don’t want to reject tourism—they realize that’s part of Sparks’ identity. But they want it to be a place for the people who live there. … Sparks was really hit hard by the recession, and this redevelopment represents hope. But everyone wants it done right. They don’t want it to become Anytown, USA. They want to maintain its identity. There’s a real love for that town.”