She's the mayor
Hillary Schieve is defying expectations.
Hillary Schieve was elected mayor of Reno in 2014 after serving two years on the Reno City Council. She owns Plato’s Closet and Clothes Mentor. She was an Olympic hopeful figure skater way back when, and she walks around with one of her sister, Amanda Sanchez’s, kidneys in her back. In fact, the result of that sudden need for a kidney probably prompted her first taste of community service, when she started a national organ-donation network. Promoting organ activism, on Feb. 11, 1998, she graced one of the best covers this newspaper ever had, dressed as a manic doctor clutching a raw beef heart.
Six thousand, three hundred and eighteen days is a long time between covers, and since she’s just celebrating six months in office as the mayor, we thought we’d sit down over some sushi and chat about the machinations in Reno’s halls of power. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones.
So you've been mayor six months now, right? So far, what's the most frustrating thing?
Time flies, right? I can't believe it. The most frustrating thing … you'll laugh. Sometimes, the headlines are misleading—when everyone thinks you want to tear down the arch. I love my job. I feel so blessed. I represent an incredible city. And sometimes it's really hard for me, because I want to be in 10 places at once. That can be really challenging, because I have a tendency to be a workaholic. I am very receptive because I love people, so I'm always trying to help them, and there's just not enough time in the day. It's a very demanding job, but it's also an incredible job, too. It's a great job.
Speaking of the arch, what did you mean by all that?
So what happened was, we were going into our budget meeting, and staff came to us, and they presented ideas and said, because we have this $10 million surplus, “We think these are some of the things you might be interested in spending this money on.” Well, one of the items said, “lights for the arch,” and I brought up the fact that there was a group interested in redoing the arch. So I brought that up to staff, saying, “I have some concerns because the arch is so iconic that this should be a conversation that's done in public and transparent.” Well, the next thing I know was, “Mayor wants to rethink arch.” People didn't read the story, they read the headline, and then my phone blew up, and my email blew up, but you know what? Actually, it turned out really well because I'm also really responsive on social media, and I responded personally, and people were surprised. They were like, “Wow, I can't believe you're actually responding.” But I think, too, it's frustrating because people are really quick to assume and to judge.
So you got a lot of negative feedback on that?
I got a ton of negative feedback.
Because I thought it was a great idea.
[Laughs.] Well, there are so many cool things we can be doing. However, the first time you have a surplus like that, we need to be really watching our house and paying down debt and things like that. That's all great, but we don't have an endless supply of money, so I got a lot of negative feedback on that. A lot. I just had to clarify and say, “Look, I want to be clear. I have no plans on touching the arch. I just want to make sure we're having a conversation.” If there's a group that's going to come in and change it, then it needs to be a public process because a lot of people feel so strongly about it. It's funny the things people care about, when there could be this really big issue versus a smaller issue.
It's amazing, isn't it? It's because these smaller issues are easier to understand, so they tend to catch the public imagination because everyone can be concerned, even people who don't care about police or fire or paying down debt. They can understand that arch is a symbol for them, either a symbol of old Reno or a symbol of new Reno.
You're right, and the more people are talking about it, the more people get engaged.
Because that's something you can talk about over dinner. You don't talk about getting the jurisdictions together on fire over dinner. You talk about, what can the Reno arch be?
And then you come up with what it could look like. I mean, people were giving me feedback. One guy said it should have a deck on it, so people can go up there and take pictures. Cool ideas.
I thought it would be cool to have that artist Leo Villareal, who did the light installation on the San Francisco Bay Bridge—to have him design an arch for us that uses LED lights that could change colors or say things or show patterns. It could be amazing, but I don't know if $10 million could pay for that. So tell me about the $10 million. How do you find $10 million? How did that come about?
I should explain that it's a one-time surplus. So a lot of people have said, “Oh, you should do this or do that with it.” You know, like hire more people. But that means you could only hire them for a year and that would be it. You have to understand what you can do with that money. But how that came about was something we call the “Tesla effect.” It comes from seed tax, franchise tax, business tax, and they didn't predict we would even have that kind of growth. So we were very surprised. I wouldn't be surprised if you see another surplus. And I know people get confused; “Well, how is that a surplus when you are $500 million in debt?” But they have to realize the general fund is different. The other interesting thing is we've already paid down $100 million in debt. And with the surplus, we've already paid down two bonds, capital improvements—I'm sure you saw the story about the elevators. I think we've had about 10 incidents of people getting stuck in our elevators. We're playing catch-up from many years of neglect.
And so we want to be really fiscally responsible with this surplus money. And it's hard because you want to do everything, and people have great ideas, whether it's parks or bike lanes or things like that. They're all great ideas, but there's just not enough money to go around, and we're playing catch-up. So capital improvements, we're paying off two bonds, and we're going to put 8 percent away in the rainy day fund. So I think we're making a really wise choice.
Remember the Jeff Griffin days when it seemed like the money was just never going to stop? $10 million wouldn't have been a drop in the bucket compared to what those guys were spending. I mean, what percentage of the train trench is $10 million? Nothing.
But I think too, this recession has really changed people and their spending habits. And that's the other thing we have to think about. What if we have another recession? We have to be much more responsible. One thing I've really enjoyed watching with this council is they're really concerned with community input, which is great, and that's one of the reasons I've been really vocal about bringing back the NABs [Neighborhood Advisory Boards]. Those are really important. But remember, we weren't on the council in the heyday. When I got there, it was, “Don't think about spending a dime.” I haven't really ever been on the council when it had money, so I don't know what that would be like.
So tell me everything you know about pot and pot dispensaries.
Can I ask you a question?
Do you smoke pot?
Sometimes. Do you?
I think some drugs cause [reactions] like paranoia. I don't want to be paranoid. Well, I've been very vocal about getting more licenses. I've done a lot of research on the benefits of marijuana, and certainly for medicinal purposes, I wholeheartedly believe in it, so I've been vocal about getting more licenses, and Senator Segerblom has done a really great job fighting for more licenses for us. And he just got us one more.
That's right, from the redistribution because the cow counties didn't want them, or didn't have the applications, I guess.
The thing for me is accessibility. A city our size, and we're only getting three. It was really interesting to watch the process, because we had a lot of people applying for these licenses, and you had these people come together and bring these partnerships, like one from California or Colorado that had already been in the business, and then they sort of married up with someone locally. But it's still really infantile, so we'll have to see how it plays out. One location will be in Midtown, and then you have one right here off of Plumb. That proximity is so close, we have to worry about accessibility.
Right, because it's going to change traffic patterns. I don't want to denigrate it because I do believe in medical marijuana, but I think it creates a system around it, whether it's for the right purposes or not. I guess that remains to be seen.
I think it will be much bigger than we ever imagined.
Recreational marijuana is only a couple of years down the road. And these people with the medical licenses will have a system already in place to move into the recreational market.
If you look at the business … people have this perception that it's “drugs,” but I've seen some really impressive operations. Right on down to the inventory. It's business. … So that's what I know about marijuana.
Well, I am disappointed to hear you have never smoked pot.
Boring, huh? What was it Clinton said? He didn't inhale?
You had some kind of caustic things to say about the RSCVA. So you got some blowback on that one. How do you feel about that? First off, what's wrong with that organization? Why is it so bad?
Quite honestly, I think we need to be holding people accountable. It's taxpayer dollars. There's a lot of bleeding going on. We have an empty bowling stadium. I know they'll disagree with me on that. We have empty event centers. We could be doing so much more with tourism—playing on this new momentum. I'm just frustrated with some of the marketing. It'll be successful in spite of itself because of this new energy Reno has created. I've been very vocal—I would like to see that board change. As a matter of fact, we're going to reduce the number of board seats at the Legislature. I just think it's time for fresh energy and a new set of eyes. We should look at it like an opportunity. We should also look at what Vegas does with the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. They do a lot right. … I'd like to see a different marketing approach.
So you think it's about the marketing?
Let me ask you this, when the bowlers are in town, do you know it?
Do you think most people do?
I don't think they have a spreading effect into the economy. I think it mostly benefits the downtown casinos.
Why do you know that? Why do you say that you know they're here?
Because I get around. I intentionally drive down Virginia Street whenever I have to get to the university.
I do too, but I think most people don't.
They avoid that area.
When are they here, what are they doing? Why aren't we surveying them, and asking, “Hey, what did you do while you were in Reno? Where did you go? Where did you stay?” It's really hard to market to a group we don't understand. Not to mention, businesses [outside of downtown] could really jump on board, with “Welcome bowlers.” Or I'm happy to go to the airport to welcome them. Really make them feel like when they're in Reno, Reno is welcoming them, and they know it. But I think, too, diversifying things we offer [is important]. One thing is the air service. We've got to really pay attention to air service and what we're bringing in. I think that whole piece of the puzzle needs to be very aggressive.
But has that changed? Air was never the major or even a major source of our tourists. It's always been Washington, Oregon, California. Is that no longer true?
Well, what happens is getting to Reno can be more challenging than getting to Vegas. Vegas is direct and much cheaper. So providing more air service … it's unfortunate that we lost the London flight, but JetBlue is really great with direct to New York. You know, I just went to Washington, D.C. Oh my gosh, it took me 12 hours to get there. It was brutal.
I just think it's an opportunity right now to make some big changes. I think that scares people when you talk about change.
But the RSCVA has been a failure since 1959. It has never successfully done what it's supposed to do.
I think a lot people feel that way. I have to tell you, that was an issue that, quite frankly, I was surprised at how many people have reached out to me, and they're very frustrated with it.
$50 million bowling stadium, facilities falling apart, facilities unoccupied. Their main job was to bring conventions in, but if you look at the numbers on conventions, they're failing in ways that aren't indicated by the economy, because we are a destination for different groups than Vegas is.
And we've lost some really big conventions, too. So you have to look at that again and say, “Well, what are we doing, and how can we do it better?” I guess I get frustrated by this mentality on the board that says, “Oh, we just can't get anyone better. We can't do any better than that.” I refuse to accept that. We have to push the limits, especially right now. We might have a limited window of opportunity with this momentum. This is the time to act upon it.
We're trying to posture ourselves as a technological hub, but we don't enable it. We've got these giant [fiber-optic internet] pipes through town, but we don't utilize them. So, what would you do? How would you change the attitude? Does it need more government oversight or more business oversight or just fewer people?
There are several things that have to happen. It's better to reduce that board, but I think you have to make your board members be engaged. And some of them, quite frankly, are not. The other thing is looking at doing something almost grassroots—sort of like what the Biggest Little City did—and really looking at the other aspects of the age groups. … We are seeing this younger demographic coming in. We have one of the best backyard playgrounds this area has to offer. We need to play on that. The marketing I've seen gives me some very big concern. [Shows a current Reno advertisement that features an '80s-looking hotel room.] Our marketing approach needs to be different.