Reno is Familytown

Low-budget events like Reno’s Fall Family Festival are intended to appeal to folks who don’t usually come downtown—like band parents and fire aficionados

Photo by David Robert

Beating drums. The jingle of a tambourine. Twirling, flaming batons reflecting in the dark waters of the Truckee River.

The Flaming Lotus, aka 25-year-old Dusty Williams of Reno, takes a swig of clear liquid from what looks like a water bottle. Then he spits the liquid into the air, causing eight- or 10-foot flames to erupt from his mouth like fiery projectile vomit. The dragon mask covering the fire dancer’s hair adds to the effect.

“Wow!” exclaims a child, maybe 10 or 12 years old, wearing a hat twisted from long balloons. The child is watching from a safe distance. Nearby stand his parents, who’ve come down to West Street Plaza for Reno’s Fall Family Festival. I hope Mom and Dad remind Junior not to attempt fire dancing at home. The Flaming Lotus is a trained professional. He’s been twirling, breathing and dancing with fire for about three years. He’s one of the Reno Fire Twirlers, a troupe that performs at the annual Burning Man festival.

“Nothing says family event like pyrotechnics,” quips Mark DeMuth, a resident of Park Towers, a downtown apartment building.

“Last week, they had fire engines down here,” replies Lauren Gifford, a vendor of tie-dyed T-shirts. “The fire dancers climbed up on one.”

“That’s got to be ironic,” DeMuth says.

The Flaming Lotus exhausts his mouthful of lighter fluid, twirls a bit longer, then puts out his flames and lets his fire dancing friends take center stage.

Redoing RENO

It’s Wednesday night, the second week of the city of Reno’s Fall Family Festival at West Street Plaza, across the river from Wingfield Park. The festival is scheduled to run Wednesdays through Dec. 11. The idea of the event is to get more families to hang around downtown, thus helping in some small way to revive the city center—the economic engine of northern Nevada.

Simply put, downtown’s in trouble—for a half-dozen obvious reasons, including the proliferation of online and Indian gambling, the challenged economy, competition with Las Vegas and what some perceive to be a nationwide marketing vacuum.

While citizens wait for that one grand plan to revitalize everything, the city redevelopment agency is trying to stand in the gap with the paltry resources it has. Hence low-budget events such as the Fall Family Festival, with free entertainment provided by local high-schoolers who come with a built-in audience—their families.

This is a wonderful concept. In the past year or so, I’ve talked with scores of parents who say they “never” come downtown.

“The lighting is so bad,” my neighbor tells me.

“And then there are all the bums,” another friend says.

I head downtown to check out the festival. As I round the corner of Sierra and First streets, I see a police officer on his motorcycle up on the sidewalk in front of Esoteric.

Laverne McKelvey of Montana keeps coming back to Reno.

Photo by David Robert

The city-run Parking Gallery isn’t too full, so I find a spot to park on the second floor, near the elevators. By the time I’ve hiked down a few stairs, the cop has First Street blocked off. Has there been an accident? I look down the street and hear the sound of snares and the thumping of a big bass drum. The Galena Marching Band is marching up the street toward Century Riverside 12. I don’t recognize the song they’re playing. It’s rhythmic and rousing, though, and a handful of parents are hiking along the street with the band, cheering them on. Tourists and clueless locals like me look on, bewildered by the spectacle of this mid-week parade.

The band turns onto Sierra Street, makes its way along the river in front of the theater building, then back to the plaza, where kids with horns, flutes and drums form a circle in front of the eight or nine vendors of food and crafts. The band plays a few more tunes, then a group of cheerleaders arrives on the scene. Parents stand facing the band along the river, clapping and shouting along with the cheers:





This is fun.


The commotion sparks the curiosity of Laverne McKelvey, a retired woman from Montana staying in a time-share at Leisure Homes, formerly the Ramada Inn.

“I was just sitting out there on my balcony,” she says, “And I heard all the noise, so I came down.”

A teen begins singing with a guitar accompaniment. McKelvey nods approvingly.

“It’s much better than listening to the sounds of slot machines.”

McKelvey’s been coming to Reno on and off for five years. Though her time-share allows her to go “almost anywhere,” she says she routinely chooses Reno—even though she does very little gambling.

"[Reno] isn’t so big, and I always have a good time here,” she says. “I took in the magician today at the Hilton. That was real good. I just like to go sightseeing to places like Virginia City. Tomorrow I’m touring around Tahoe.”

She also likes to pop into local pawnshops from time to time, looking for good deals on jewelry. She’s wearing at least a half-dozen Black Hills gold rings as evidence that she’s found more than one bargain.

McKelvey especially enjoys events in Wingfield Park—she attended a craft fair there last year—and she says she feels safe in downtown Reno, most of the time.

Photo by David Robert

“When I came across the park, there was a fellow sitting on a bench. He was kind of dilapidated and looked really scary. Then I saw this girl, and she looked drugged out. But then when I got over here [in the plaza], it was better.”

She looks over at a Reno police officer mounted on a sturdy bike and nods.

“There are more people over here, more police.”


“I feel safe down here,” says Sgt. Van Fenner. He doesn’t smile. “I have plenty of back-up.”

Fenner and his bike are part of the RPD’s tax district team, which includes 12 police officers and two sergeants on bikes. Bicycles, it turns out, are the perfect vehicles for downtown drug busts. When Reno’s special-enforcement team gets ready to nab a drug dealer or two hanging out at, say, the corner of West and Second streets, Fenner’s team heads to the scene to make what he calls a “high-profile arrest.”

“We all swoop in with our bikes,” Fenner says. “It’s a very quick and efficient way to make an arrest should they decide to run.”

Fenner says the team makes these kinds of arrests regularly. He thinks that some of the dope peddlers are learning.

“With high-profile arrests, the drug dealers get the idea and realize they’re not welcome here.”

Fenner, 48, has four kids and three grandkids and lives in the North Valleys. He likes to see families come downtown. Events held in the park make the cops’ jobs easier, at least while the events are in progress.

“It increases the legitimate use of the park,” Fenner says. “It keeps the riff-raff away … at least during the event. Then everyone goes home, and the homeless come out to sleep here or to drink. Kids come down and use this as a skate park. Their boards tear things up.”


Tie-dyed T-shirts, boxer shorts, baby jumpers and other goods at the West Street Plaza are selling about as well as Sierra Pacific stock.

“I’ll make you a deal on that last pair of underwear,” vendor Lauren Gifford tells a cheerleader. “It’s Galena’s school colors. Go Grizzlies! I’ll make you a deal.”

But the girl is unconvinced. The shorts just aren’t the right size for her brother, she says. She selects a different item of clothing, though. It’s Gifford’s second or third transaction of the evening.

Gifford and her husband Steve dye shirts at their home-based business and sell shirts out of booths at Lake Tahoe and in Carson City. In Reno, they’re signed up to offer shirts at Wednesday night festivals through December.

The paint’s peeling on a City of Trembling Leaves mural along the Mason Building.

Photo by David Robert

“Business is very slow,” Gifford says. “But for me, we don’t have a storefront here, and this is our way of coming out and supporting the community.”

In between trying to make sales out of casual shoppers perusing racks of shirts with peace signs and seasonal tie-dyed jack-o-lanterns, Gifford spoons up soup out of a plastic container and talks about her more famous shirts. The Giffords created tie-dyed polo shirts for the crew of the TV show The West Wing, and the couple also received an ordered for six identically dyed hemp onesies for a baby to wear during the taping of an episode of Dharma & Greg. More recently, she used four shades of orange and yellow dye to create shirts for a team of environmental monitors for the city of Reno’s ReTRAC project.

“They all look like giant candy corn,” she says.

Gifford’s friend, DeMuth, is an environmental consultant for the ReTRAC project. He lived downtown before the amphitheater was built in Wingfield Park.

“The city is doing an incredible job of getting people down here,” he says. “They’ve really made strides. I won’t get into whether that translates into making money or getting more tax dollars.”

“People have to get into the habit of going downtown,” Gifford says.

“But it is getting to the point where you can come downtown almost anytime in the summer, and something is going on,” DeMuth says.


Rich and Gretchen Faber came down to see their ninth-grader, Kevin, perform with the band. The Galena couple also frequently brings out-of-town visitors downtown for Artown events, chili cook-offs or visits to the ice skating rink. Gretchen, a stay-home mom, likes to go for walks with friends along the river. She says she got in the habit when her mom had a spot selling goods at the Antique Emporium.

The Fabers moved to Reno from the Bay Area about two years ago. When Rich, an employee of SNE Equipment in Sparks, first arrived in town, he thought that there was little to do other than gamble. Soon he discovered the downtown movie theater. Then he realized that Reno offered plenty of other activities—and it keeps adding more.

“I like having a lot of events,” he says. “It’s a safe place to go, and you’re going to find something to do. It’s not like going to Cold Springs or Fernley.”

Faber likes the small-town feel of Reno that extends to downtown. The small downtown merchants are creating the supportive kind of community that cities in the Bay Area would do well to imitate.

“The businesses pull together to help people in trouble,” she says. “In California, if there’s a problem, people say, ‘Somebody else will take care of it.’ Here in Reno, we say, ‘We’ll take care of our own.’ “


Young kids watch in awe as the fire dancers leap and juggle and twirl fire across the sky. Each Wednesday, the Fall Festival wraps up with a small fireworks display, says Steve Hardesty of the Reno Redevelopment Agency. He watches the frolicking flamesters and their mesmerizing effect on a handful of children.

Band members, parents and cheerleaders all left the event shortly after their performances ended. But that’s OK. They were here, tasting from the cornucopia of riches (in theory) offered up by downtown Reno.

Sgt. Van Fenner’s a member of the Reno Police Department’s bike-riding tax district team. His bike has flashing lights.

Photo by David Robert

“We got people down here, a captive audience,” Hardesty says. “And this is what it’s all about—the little munchkins. There wasn’t a lot of turnout, but more than last week. Next week, we’ll have Hug High …”

The Family Festival is more than an attempt to extend the good feelings of Artown into December. It’s about getting different folks from different parts of town to the city’s center, Hardesty says.

“We’ve done a lot of neat things to get past the myths people have about downtown, ‘There aren’t enough lights. It’s full of bums.’ This is an opportunity to see what we’ve got. Like the [River Walk Merchants'] Wine Walks. People come to those and they say, ‘We didn’t know you were down here.'” (Side note: Wine walks are free, and they’re held every third Saturday each month.)

The River Walk Merchants are sponsors of the Fall Festival, along with Harrah’s, Fitzgerald’s, Wells Fargo Bank, Southwest Airlines, International Game Technology and Somersett. This kind of support is key to downtown’s survival. The Redevelopment Agency has its hands full with projects big and small, from planning a Downtown Events Center, to plotting how to get money to turn the Mapes lot into a public plaza, to changing the light bulbs in the city-run Parking Gallery.

Among things touted as successes: Several new retail shops have opened in the area, and in the next few weeks there’ll be a ground-breaking for a building to house new restaurants—Pane Vino on the River, Cue ‘n’ Cushion and Silver Peak, across from the Century Riverside.

Construction on the project has been held up while the city tries to figure out what to do about the flood-unfriendly sidewalk along the river from North Virginia Street to Sierra Street. The Army Corps of Engineers says the sidewalk must be fixed. Also facing the quirky sidewalk is the Mason Building (current home to Brüka Theater), a building with an uncertain future. The owners of the planned restaurants, with their backs to the Mason Building, are concerned about possible impacts of future construction in the area—whether it’s to tear out the sidewalk or to renovate or demolish the Mason Building.

Redevelopment is a 1,000-piece puzzle, and the city of Reno is still sorting out all the pieces.

Events like the Fall Festival cost more than they bring in revenue-wise. But city officials are hoping that where that critical mass of people is reached, money-making will follow. And, Hardesty says, the second festival night is already much “larger” than the first night—the kick-off extravaganza.

“Extravaganza is a big word for, ‘We hope it was',” Hardesty says. “We’ll get bigger and better as we go along.”


As I leave the festival, walking up the steps of Brick Park toward First Street, I see a man with a guitar standing in the shadows.

“They’re drumming down there,” I say. “Are you going to play your guitar?”

“Do you want me to?” the man says, hopefully. His long hair is held out of his eyes with a folded red bandana. There’s a key dangling from a string tied around his neck.

“Well, I’m actually taking off. But I bet they’d let you play.”

“I don’t think I can.”


“I usually play down here. But the cops hassle you. I guess you have to get a license, and I don’t have one. So I have to be careful or they’ll haul me off and cut my hair and everything.”

I give him a few bucks and wish him well. He thanks me, telling me about his original music—recommended if you like the Rolling Stones—and his partner and their recording equipment.

“We’re going to put out a CD soon,” he says.

I hike to the Parking Gallery, then up a few stairs. The hall is lit with what must be 200-watt lights.

It’s almost blinding.