On the market

What's in a business name?

The Great Western Marketplace has a everything from food to furniture. The marketplace is only open Friday through Sunday.

The Great Western Marketplace has a everything from food to furniture. The marketplace is only open Friday through Sunday.

The Great Western Marketplace, 4855 Summit Ridge Drive, is a bit hard to define upon first glance, but a fair—if somewhat odd—metaphor might just be the hermit crab.

A brief explanation of this wonder of nature: the hermit crab is a resourceful creature that makes its home inside a second-hand gastropod shell, most often that of a deceased sea snail.

In the case of the Great Western Marketplace, the dead snail was a Super Kmart, which closed in 2008, leaving behind an eyesore of a shell in a residential neighborhood just off West McCarran Boulevard and Interstate 80. The building stood abandoned throughout the recession, gaining layers of graffiti and losing yards of copper wiring at the hands of vandals.

When local businesswoman Trudy Naumann and her family purchased the building in 2013, they told the media that they’d turn that shell into a home for small local vendors, artists’ exhibitions, live entertainment, restaurants and more. After a 14-month renovation process, the Great Western Marketplace held its grand opening with about 60 vendors on Black Friday 2014.

In a Reno Gazette-Journal article published two days prior to the opening, GWM Director of Marketing and Special Events Len Marazzo predicted that the building would eventually house more than 250 vendors. His projection for the future has yet to be realized. Today, the GWM is indeed home to local artisans, food vendors and more, but the 166,000 square foot building still appears largely empty with a total of about 50 vendors. On sites like Yelp, reviewers comment on the apparent emptiness of the space, saying things like, “This place has a lot of potential. There is just a lot of vacant space right now” and “I love the concept of this place, but it’s weird! The booths seemed mostly empty” or “Wished this venue was doing better.”

But, according to Marazzo, these people aren’t seeing the full picture.

Half empty or half full?

According to Marazzo, the unused space in the retail section of the GWM building belies the fact that the marketplace is actually doing quite well, thanks in part to a number of businesses that operate outside of the rows of stalls used by vendors.

In the back of the building, out of sight of the customers, a large Amazon book business rents space for storage and a distribution center. Nearby is Soaring High Ministries, a nondenominational Christian church that’s taken up residence in a room just off from what was once the layaway department when Kmart owned the building. The GWM also hosts special events to bolster day-to-day business, including a free monthly wine walk and live music every Friday. A large open space behind the vendor booths is available to rent for parties. And the newest business venture, Marazzo said, was the signing of a three-year contract by Carson RV for several acres of sales space in the GWM parking lot.

“Of course, we have goals and we want to grow, and that’s why we’re doing the special events and we’re leasing the outdoor space,” Marazzo said. “We’re OK with where it’s at but, of course, we want to grow.”

According to Marazzo, one challenge to growth comes in controlling the way the public perceives the marketplace. Nothing bothers him quite like people who compare the GWM to a flea market or a swap meet. He explained some key differences. Businesses must apply and be vetted prior to moving in, and thrift store and garage sale merchandise is not allowed. While the owners have considered setting aside a row of stalls as weekly rentals to accommodate such purposes, Marazzo considers the overall tone of the GWM as more closely akin to that of a business incubator—a place where newly licensed business owners can test the waters with short-term leases in a space where they don’t have to worry about setting up utilities or paying for security or surveillance.

“It’s all inclusive,” Marazzo said. “There’s no hidden fees. There’s no commissions, and you can just, you know, grow your business, incubate it. Start out small. See what you can afford.”

Multipurpose room to grow

While the vendor stalls are laid out in uniform rows and constructed with removable walls to allow businesses to expand in 100-square foot increments, the approach to growth at the GWM isn't strictly one-size-fits-all.

More established businesses like a motorcycle dealership, a canine daycare and “athletic club,” and a photography studio occupy larger spaces set up in rooms and alcoves off the main floor. A separate area houses food vendors and the GWM-owned wine bar.

The marketplace’s hours remain limited to Friday through Sunday to accommodate the many business owners who hold down day jobs. For some, the GWM is a springboard from which they hope to launch a business that will one day occupy a brick and mortar location elsewhere in town. But for others, the weekend warrior approach is just the right speed. And still others have taken up space in the marketplace seeking exposure rather than sales.

Denise Greene has been at the marketplace since it opened and has expanded her stall twice, to take up an area of 300-square feet. Before the GWM opened, she sold her handmade gemstone jewelry and titanium art pieces in glass-enclosed shadow boxes during events like the Nugget Rib Cook-Off.

“This to me is a starting point to see how people respond to my pieces,” Greene said. “I love doing it. That’s my biggest benefit. I love to see the response. I don’t know—I just love to see people enjoy my things.”

A few rows down from Greene’s booth, Jim and Connie Higgins operate the Sweet Yellow Bath Company from the same 10-by-10 stall they occupied when the marketplace opened. They’ve put down a large area rug and painted the walls of their space with cheery yellow and white stripes. Like Greene, they’re happy to no longer be carting their products to temporary booths at local events. But where Greene sees the marketplace as a starting point, the Higginses don’t foresee expanding their business. Connie manages a big-box store and Jim works in food and beverage at a downtown casino.

Carole Gauler’s realty office shares an adjoining wall with Sweet Yellow Bath Company and stands in stark contrast to the Higgins’ bright color pallet. Her space is occupied by a single desk and conservative office furnishings in neutral tones. Another difference is that Gauler isn’t selling anything, per se. She’s personal friends with GWM owner Trudy Naumann, and uses her stall as a way to meet people and drive business to her brick and mortar operation on California Avenue.

“When [the marketplace] was empty—nothing up, zero, none of this—we drove around in a golf cart and laughingly I said, ’OK, I’ll take a space from you, Trudy, as long as I’m across from the wine bar,’” Gauler recalled.

These days, she puts the bar and other vendors to good use, often buying visitors a drink or snack when they stop by to talk shop on things like property management and the local housing market.

On Mother’s Day, there were plenty of visitors to be found. The GWM held one of its free wine walks and handed out complimentary roses to the mothers in attendance. A steady crowd wandered among the stalls, and the vendors reported that business was brisk. It’s days like this that Marazzo believes will eventually lead to a time when there are more full stalls than empty ones in the marketplace.

“I don’t know that it’ll happen in the next six months, but I think—as things open in the parking lot, as we do more events—I do think that it will, for sure,” Marazzo said. “Reno’s a tough sale. It takes time to build that crowd. And Reno’s a great word-of-mouth community.”