Reno’s image problem

In a recent informal meeting with a downtown Reno businessman, this statement was made: “Nobody in town likes to hear this, but Reno has an image problem” in other communities.

The statement is true, but it needs some analysis.

First, a couple of assumptions: 1) This image problem did not begin with Reno 911. Rather, Reno 911 began because of the outside perception of our community. 2) People who live here don’t have an image problem with Reno. We know how we live, we love it, and therefore, we think outsiders see us as we do.

And now, maybe we can figure out why Reno has an image problem in the world beyond McCarran Boulevard.

We’re going to say some things that some may find unsettling, particularly coming from this newspaper, which has never been exactly a bastion of haute culture.

First, Reno and Sparks have become special event oriented. Even if people don’t come to town specifically for special events, they’re likely to step outside the casino if there are 50,000 people visiting for Hot August Nights or the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off.

And what do they see? Well, primarily they see people who will travel to go to a free or low-cost event. Primarily, that means people in lower economic brackets in the nearby region and people within this county’s borders.

Why is that, exactly? Well, it’s like this: People on vacation tend to travel to the places they can get the most for their money, and yet still feel like they’ve gone somewhere special. For example, many of us middle-classers in Reno can’t afford to travel to Brunei for the week, but we can afford a week in Napa or a weekend in San Francisco. People don’t tend to step down for vacation, except for camping in the outdoors. That would be like Northern Nevadans going to Fresno. Las Vegans don’t usually come to Reno for the weekend, but Renoites do go to Vegas.

So, suppose an average San Francisco sophisticate comes through Reno at any point this summer when there’s a “special” event downtown. They’re monied, at least in comparison to Northern Nevadans. For example, according to, as of June 2011, average apartment rent within 10 miles of San Francisco is $1,729, compared to $811 in Reno.

What do they see? They see people who come downtown for free entertainment, free-to-cheap liquor, people who are well-aware of the 100-plus degree heat on the Virginia Street asphalt and dressed accordingly, people who are neither fit nor sober. In the crowd, they see a very large percentage of the lowest socio-economic strata of Northern Nevada. They see thrown-together traffic direction, wannabe cops, vendor stands selling low-quality gee-gaws and corndogs. They see an adult carnival, fueled by alcohol, attended by people who can’t afford better, run by carnies.

The reason Reno has an image problem is because the city throws parties without class, without sophistication and without a guest list.

It may be one blind person describing one part of the elephant, but it’s accurate. Pick any “special” event, and see it yourself through an outsider’s eyes.