Reno is coming back

February 6, 2024 6:58 PM
  • Dennis Conrad
February 6, 2024 6:58 PM
  • Dennis Conrad

I’ve lived in Reno for nearly 30 years now. My Iowa-born wife, Becky, likes it much better than Las Vegas. Sort of like an Iowa mid-sized city, with Walmart!

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I never thought I’d ever say this, but the gaming industry in Reno is making a comeback. Oh, it’s not a sudden turnaround, more like a slow steady drip of positive happenings and proposed future development plans. This is also buoyed by an influx of companies relocating to Reno (like Tesla), a diversifying economy, its bedrock special events (Hot August Nights, Balloon Races, Street Vibrations, Great American Rib Cookoff, etc.), and a continuing flow of new residents from other states (mostly California). Reno has almost achieved “hidden-gem” status.

The gaming industry in Reno has taken some hard knocks over the last few decades. Indian gaming in California, Oregon, and Washington has greatly reduced visitation from most of these Reno feeder markets. Many downtown Reno casinos have closed (they needed to) or been repurposed. Reinvestment in still-existing Reno gaming properties, until recently, has been mostly minimal. And a new casino hadn’t been built in Reno in years, until the Legends Bay Casino (in adjacent Sparks) a couple of years ago.

But somehow, some way, established gaming companies have reached the conclusion that Reno and Sparks are now ripe for development and expansion. Grand Sierra Resort (formally the Reno Hilton, before that the MGM Grand Reno) has announced over $1 billion in expansion plans, including a new state-of-the-art arena that will be the new home of University of Nevada basketball, as well as a major new event venue. Century Casinos has made the Nugget (formerly John Ascuaga’s Nugget) the flagship property for the whole company. And plans for a couple of new locals’ casinos have been discussed.

The most interesting major commitment to Reno, to me, has been from Jeff Jacobs of Jacobs Entertainment, whose company has casinos in Black Hawk, Colorado, several Gold Dust West casinos in Nevada (not Las Vegas), and the newly redeveloped J Resort (formerly the Sands Regency) in downtown Reno.

Jacobs’s transformation of the Sands Regency to the J Resort has been particularly impressive, as the Sands was neglected for decades, being notorious for its $29 rooms where Burning Man participants (not known as gamblers) stayed and hung out for a few days before or after their dusty week in the desert. Now, a couple of hundred million dollars later (and it’s not even fully completed yet), the new J Resort is one of the most remarkable re-engineered casino properties I’ve ever seen and is a true modern casino doing downtown Reno proud.

And that’s only part of Jacobs’s investment downtown. He bought all of the land and properties along a six-block stretch from J Resort on one end of 4th Street to his very successful locals’ casino, Gold Dust West-Reno, on the other end of 4th Street. He’s spending a couple billion dollars to create the Neon Line District, a cool six-block area with art displays, entertainment, condominiums, and other major features that no doubt will turn “run down” into “must see” in the greatest development in downtown Reno since, well, maybe ever. Kudos to Jeff Jacobs, who had to fight harder than he should have to make it all happen.

Reno resort-casinos are not like Las Vegas’s, with its scores of mainly “tourist” resorts and not much casino business from locals. In Reno to be truly successful, resorts have to appeal to both tourists and locals, and in my opinion the best attract them in close to equal numbers. And that’s no easy task, as locals and tourists have different wants and needs, often at different price points.

I don’t mean to imply that Reno is out of the woods and heading into boom times. It’s a little early to suggest that. But the gaming industry’s usual follow-the-leader approach to investment in a gaming market, especially one as long neglected as Reno, probably means other investors will swoop into the Biggest Little City, trying to understand what other early investors in Reno might be seeing. That will determine if Reno is just getting a bump or a boom.

Reno’s challenges are still significant. Downtown still faces the same issues as downtown Las Vegas — homeless, some shuttered buildings, an environment still seen as somewhat schlocky. The downtown Reno properties need to attract more locals to maximize their gaming business. J Resort especially needs to coax a significant number of locals, to give the place a try and make them advocates for a great new property, rather than detractors who remember only what a dive the old Sands Regency was. The Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority needs stability, leadership, and vision after decades of infighting and executive turnover. Affordable housing, education, infrastructure, and other issues also dog Reno like other growing cities.

However, I’m here to report that the storm clouds have at least parted somewhat in Reno and the sun has started to shine. Gaming investors and developers: I believe you should take a look at this market. For 25 years, I never thought I would ever say that.

Earlier posts by Dennis

Emerald Island: A casino that gets it

Thank you, Richard Schuetz, Again

The all-time top-10 types of casino promotions

Imagining a discussion today with John Romero

A holiday weekend in Las Vegas

It’s okay, they won’t know or care!

Crazy ideas I fell for

The Blonde Elvis

How to stop gambling from being banned

What about these Electronic Crap Games?

Some overdue recognition

My top 10 casino pet peeves

Service you can trust. Really.

I Need Help!

Top 10 things casino players hate

Making lemons out of lemonade

David Kranes: The most unappreciated man in gaming

Two Dinosaurs Walk into a Bar

The magic of Barona

My Top 10 big-picture casino-industry trends

I am your customer

The Rad Bar — If I owned a video poker bar

Stop eroding player value

What? You’re still alive?