Bob Cashell's office is nearly vacant, but his record is not
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell was term limited out of office this year, so his name was not on this week’s election ballot. Anyone following him around the day before the election, though, would have gotten the impression there were a lot of people who wanted it to be.
“Thank you for your service,” said one woman in a breakfast circle at the Gold ’N’ Silver Restaurant, reaching for his hand to shake.
“You did a good job,” said another customer.
Both husband and wife at one booth thanked Cashell.
This is not an age when politicians get much positive feedback from the public. But Cashell is a throwback to an earlier kind of politics, when competing politicians worked together even while disagreeing. And he was able to bring other members of the Reno City Council to see the value in that way of doing business. One of the reasons he ran for mayor—and one of the reasons he was recruited for the job—is that Reno’s City Council then was riven by disagreements. In addition, it had alienated many residents by its high-handedness toward citizens in getting rid of the Mapes Hotel and funding the train trench.
Cashell’s skills at working with people came into play quickly after he took office. Councilmembers still disagreed, but they stopped letting those disagreements interfere with getting things done, and Cashell wanted inclusiveness toward the public. Some of his stances were not popular, such as his support for lowering the railroad tracks into the trench (a project already partly underway when he became mayor), but his insistence on everyone having their say defused ill will.
Cashell’s predecessor, Jeff Griffin, was heard to say that the way to revitalize the downtown was to get people to move back there to live. During Cashell’s tenure, the Comstock, Sundowner and Golden Phoenix casinos were converted to residential properties and new residential structures were also built on Sierra and State streets. But the progress of most of them was damaged by the recession that began in 2007, and hopes for a full fledged grocery store seen as essential for fostering downtown residential living never came to be. “A couple of majors talked to me before, but there just wasn’t enough market, there wasn’t enough residential,” Cashell said. It was something of a chicken-and-egg thing. Residents are difficult to lure until there is a grocery, and a grocery company is reluctant to come in until there are enough residents to support a store. Cashell said a new purchaser of the Woolworth building at First and Virginia may open a small grocery, such as already exists on West Street, but it won’t be the kind of full-fledged market needed.
Many such projects had good and bad sides. A downtown ballpark was built and a minor league team came in, generating community excitement. But the financing in hard times was shaky and a refinancing included the city dipping into the general fund annually and taking back ownership of the ballpark in 30 years—meaning the city will get back an aging hulk about the time it needs major repair or demolition.
Other failures and disappointments that happened on Cashell’s watch included his inability to keep county/city fire services consolidation together and the fact that the King’s Inn is still standing. In coming into office 12 years ago, Cashell named the demolition of the long-vacant Third Street casino hotel as one of his principal goals.
“They built over leased land,” he said this week, explaining why the city was never able to get control of the property to tear down the derelict. “There’s a [separate] piece of property right in the middle of it. Say 50, 60 feet by 150 back to the alley.”
As for rebuilding fire consolidation, he kept trying for months after the county pulled out of joint fire services. He blamed that county decision on the desire of some county commissioners to break the union. Cashell said he finally had to give up trying soon after the 2012 election, though he still made stabs at it from time to time. “We just kept running into roadblocks,” he said. He remains convinced that in terms of response times, consolidation beats separate operations.
City leaders did not stay ahead of sewage capacity, which in the 1970s reached a crisis point and forced a Reno-Sparks sewer plant expansion. The plant was already receiving clean water fines when, in the closing months of Cashell’s term, Tesla Motors decided to move to Storey County. The nearest communities for its employees are Fernley and Sparks, the latter joint operators of the plant with Reno. The Tesla plant supposedly will bring up to 6,500 new workers, and the plant has fewer than 4,000 additional hook-ups to parcel out.
City government and the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority stayed focused on gambling well after it became clear that tribal gambling in California was slowly eroding Reno’s principal group of customers. Meanwhile, under private entities, arts programs had slowly been growing and creating a new identity for the city. It took too long for the business community and government to embrace that new field of tourism, but eventually they did. It was something that worked for Cashell, who had long had a leg in the arts community. In a book he wrote in 2010, Cashell describes attending a 1970s meeting at his wife’s request of the board of directors of the Nevada Museum of Art. Part way through the meeting, happily seated anonymously in the audience, Cashell—then a truck stop owner—heard board member Howard Rosenberg nominate him for board chair. The two men had once worked on a budget problem together and apparently Rosenberg had been impressed.
“Well, the members voted for me to chair their board,” Cashell wrote.
Cashell didn’t want to retire as mayor. He would have run again if the law allowed it. “I’m probably getting to the age where I should think about retirement, but really I don’t want to retire,” he said two years ago (“Action figure,” RN&R, July 19, 2012).
And he is not retiring after he leaves office next week. He said he’ll be deciding what to do soon, but it will include new work. “I’ve seen people who lie around on the couch after they retire die, and that’s not for me,” he said.
Some of the things he says sound kind of hokey on paper, but coming from Cashell in person, they ring true because he does mean them. “There is no I in team and no I in we,” he said. “I had a great council, and we did good things together.”
To this day he adamantly refuses to name his accomplishments, saying that only by working together did the council get things done, and that took all of them.