West Street Market deserves more time

Look! Down that small street. Is it a success? A failure? Urban blight or the future of our fair city? It’s the West Street Market, and, depending on the time of day, time of year, and whom you ask, it is any and all of those things.

I am on the board of Nevada Econet, one of the WSM tenants. I recall the original vision proposed by Karen Craig back in 2007-08 that the former homes of Liquid Lounge, the Green Room and G-Spot could be converted into urban market space linked by a courtyard. Like Pike Place in Seattle or the Ferry Building in San Francisco, these repurposed historic buildings would become home to a vibrant arts and culture scene, with juice bars, wine shops, artisan cheeses and produce to serve primarily to a lunch and after-work crowd. With the Montage and Plaza just across the street, this vision seemed a slam-dunk to successfully enhancing the emerging local business scene coalescing along the river.

Now, the Reno Redevelopment Agency, the Reno City Council, and the West Street Market tenants are exploring alternatives to shuttering the market and defaulting on the 10-year lease.

First, there were construction delays that postponed the market’s opening from summer 2008 to January 2009—exactly the time frame when the collapse of Wall Street initiated the current recession. Four of the initial 11 tenants withdrew before the market even opened. The growth in downtown residential population failed to materialize. Throughout downtown, small businesses are struggling to survive, several unsuccessfully: Dreamer’s, Sasha’s and La Bussola all closed their doors this year.

Given this bleak economic picture, the ability of West Street tenants to generate business and thrive at all should be a testament to the powerful potential of the initial vision. Earthly Delights, the West Street Wine Bar, Niko’s Greek Deli, Reno eNVy and Se7en are still alive and well, even without the daytime traffic anticipated in the initial vision. Recently, a controversy has emerged with regard to Se7en booking late-night bands on the stage in their common area, and whether such entertainment constitutes “nightclub” activity requiring a cabaret license. And a staff report for the city of Reno, citing the lack of daytime activity and the cost to continue the lease without enough revenue or jobs creation to meet costs, raised the possibility of defaulting on the lease altogether, an expensive option to say the least.

What might have been another failed attempt at urban renewal in Reno appears to be turning around as the West Street Market tenants organized last week and presented to the Redevelopment Agency an alternative plan that would allow the tenants more say in the management and marketing of WSM. The issue is raising a lot of internet discussion on blogs like Reno Downtown—with respondents offering some great ideas and general support for the initial vision, along with sympathy for tenants who are finding new roads to success.

The city and the community have invested too much in this market to turn our backs on it barely a year after it opened. I don’t think it would take too much to make this space work according to the original idea, but we need the latitude to be creative. Link it more obviously to the river walk, be smarter about the Sunday farmers markets, have regular events in the courtyard during the summer and find cool projects to keep things interesting in the winter. Building a strong urban core is key to a vibrant future for this city, but doing so requires patience and community support in these still-shaky economic times.