9/12/09 - At the last Joint Redevelopment Agency and Reno City Council Meeting, after hearing John Hester's presentation on priority projects that should be put on the back burner, a discussion briefly ensued with the Board, with the majority of the discussion surrounding the post office and whitewater park extension. Hascheff and the Mayor did not like the idea of putting the whitewater park on the back burner.
The whitewater park extension is a $10 million project. I know of a much much less expensive project that could have twice the impact on downtown Reno...the Virginia Street Facade Improvement Program.
The Facade Improvement Program was supposedly a funded project, and I don't recall exactly the reason it became non-funded, but I think it had to do with bond markets not yielding the fundage originally anticipated. Whatever the reason was, after aligning the businesses on that block with an architect who spent a considerable amount of time speaking with both the lessees and owners to develop a concept and renderings, the at-least-$500,000 required for the project is not available.
That's puzzling to me, because according to a city staff report, not only is the Facade Improvement Program eligible for the Recovery Zone Bonds discussed at great length here, a payment source has been identified to pay down the bond, which is the Community Development Block Grant.
Check this out:
Here's a new bakery that opened downtown. Doesn't it have the most inviting facade you have ever seen? It says 'come in and buy some bread" yes? No. You can barely tell this business is anything other than the mini-mart that was formerly there. Now let's look at what the same building could look like with a little touch-up, based on city staff reports back when the Facade Improvement Program was a hot item.
If you were a tourist enjoying Hot August Nights or Art Town and were traveling from your downtown hotel to the riverwalk, which of the above buildings would you most likely wander into on your way down to the river?
I feel it's a mistake to put this project on the back burner simply because it's not funded. Perhaps the priority should be to find funding for it, particularly since it's a qualifying project for the Recovery Zone Bonds. As a commenter pointed out in a different blog, the and 100 and 200 blocks of Virginia Street are among the worst in the city. It's a vital corridor tourists walk up and down, it's the core of our city, and it's a sad reminder better days when the lights of bustling casinos lit up Virginia Street like a Christmas Tree.
The Street Beautification Program helped quite a bit, but the shuttered Woolworth's Building, the cavernous empty retail along the 100 Block, the Virginian, the Nevadan, the closed tourist shop just south of Beverly's, etc all overshadow the hard work done of widening the sidewalks and making Virginia Street beautiful. A large portion of the events in downtown Reno utilize Virginia Street, and thousands of tourists see the remnants of a bygone era, intermixed with liquor stores and souvenir shops with aluminum foil taped up on the upper windows of the building, or the fact that Harrah's refuses to remove that ugly ball left over from Planet Hollywood. Sorry Harrah's, it doesn't work for your Japanese Steakhouse, nor does it to that amazing restaurant justice.
Most residents I know don't really venture north of 1st Street unless they are catching a show at the Events Center, and most cite the condition of downtown north of 2nd Street as the reason why. I realize the city can't do 'everything' and that some programs have to be sacrificed to reflect the redevelopment agency's budget, But in the midst of talking about beautifying Virginia Street from Liberty to the Convention Center, and discussions of purchasing the Post Office, it's difficult to grasp the lack of interest in this project, or the lack of willpower on the part of the council to at least try to find funding for it. What about using the $500,000 that became available for the ReTRAC Enhancements project for the Facade Improvement program?
This not only extends to local residents, but tourists. There is a lot of talk about a new marketing campaign from the RSCVA coming up soon. But I wonder how much good it will do this tourist-oriented part of downtown when it looks like a hurricane from the 1960's hit it? You can't simply brush the mess under a doormat and then say 'ooh but look at our pretty riverwalk!' Tourists have to walk through that mess to get to the Riverwalk. It would be silly and short-sighted for me to think that downtown Reno is central to every marketing campaign for Reno and the region, nor that every one of the 5.1 million tourists that visited last year stepped foot in downtown...but it does play a large role.
This is why the revitalization of downtown is so important. Most of the special events for Reno are held downtown, or within walking distance of downtown, with the major exception being the Reno Air Races. But even those people most likely stay downtown. There are times walking around the Fitz area where I truly feel uncomfortable holding a $1200 camera taking pictures. And that's supposed to be the HEART of our city; The Arch, etc.
Now, honestly ask yourself...as a tourist...would downtown be your first pick to stay, or would the Atlantis or Peppermill, which recently poured $400,000,000 into a megarenovation, be more appealing? Or even GSR? And then simply visit downtown as a tourist stop rather than it be your central hub for checking out the rest of the city?
So, this facade improvement program is not only needed to help locals get reaquainted with some new businesses opening up shop on this block, but also to give tourists the message we care about this community, and want them to come back to downtown. Pleeeeeeease city council, find a way to make this a priority. Don't put it on the back burner.