The mobility of Liberty

The lunch special Monday at the Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant: tuna sandwiches for $4.50. The soup of the day: split pea or navy bean with ham. Behind the counter, Tracy Grunhauser, an Australian who’s worked at the Liberty Belle for nine years, sliced lunchmeat and prepared for the noon crowd. Grunhauser has worked at other places in Reno, but she’s stayed at this job for nearly a decade.

“It’s great to work at a place like this, a true Reno landmark,” she said. “And our customers are wonderful. We have some people who eat lunch here three times a week.”

Grunhauser’s face darkened a bit, though, when she talked about a proposal to get the Liberty Belle out of view of the new Reno-Sparks Convention Center on South Virginia Street.

“It wouldn’t be right to close it,” Grunhauser said. “It’s been here 43 years. [The owners] have put their whole lives into building the business up.”

Painted a vibrant blue, its roof lined with full-sized shells of stagecoaches, the building does kind of stick out in front of the clean lines of the new, improved convention center. The saloon’s collection of antique slot machines dating back to the 1800s make it a must-see for gambling history buffs. On one wall is a picture of “Reno Looking South” dated 1890, a time when the townsfolk numbered a simple 3,563 and southward development ended where Center Street joins South Virginia.

Patrons say the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority had better think twice before it makes a move on this much-loved Reno landmark. It’s been through this fight before.

“[The Liberty Belle] has an awful lot of friends here in Reno,” said Jim Butler, the first customer in the door Monday after the saloon opened at 11 a.m. Comfortably attired in jeans and an insulated vest, Butler sat at the end of the bar, sipping wine and playing video poker. A Reno native who jokes that he’s 106 years old, Butler said he visits the Belle about two or three times a week. “And they were here first, before that architect built that thing over there. They shoulda made a proposal a long time ago, when they knew what they were going to do.”

Turns out that the saloon that opened 43 years ago is suddenly a small square of kitschy history amidst a $105 million rectangle of slick, high-tech development intended to rescue Reno’s endangered economy.

With convention center renovations nearing completion, the tourism agency couldn’t help but remember once again that the Liberty Belle sits right in front of its entrance. Some members of the RSCVA have expressed support for buying Liberty Belle’s parcel of land and relocating the restaurant. The owners say the building wouldn’t survive a move; it would have to be rebuilt. And the only location that’s OK with the owners is a bit to the north at South Virginia Street and East Peckham Lane.

Bartender/manager Geno Oliver, who has worked at the Belle for 23 years, said he hasn’t followed the news. He’d been out of town for a few days. “The RSCVA says you’re blocking the view,” I explained.

Oliver looked at me and grumbled: "They shoulda thought about that before they built the entrance."