RENO -- Work began Thursday on a project designed to transform the Truckee River into a haven for rafters and kayakers and elevate Reno's tourism allure from gambling pit stop to outdoor adventure destination.
"The building of this whitewater park represents a giant step forward for outdoor recreation and economic vitality in our state," said Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, chairwoman of the Nevada Commission on Tourism.
Hunt was joined by Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, members of the City Council, casino executives and other state and local officials for ground breaking ceremonies in Wingfield Park on a downtown island in the river.
Construction should be completed by November.
The $1.5 million project, the first of its kind west of the Rocky Mountains, will create pools and rapids for rafters and kayakers along a 1,400-foot stretch of river through downtown.
Over the next five or six years, other improvements are planned to make 24 miles of the river more navigable from Verdi west of Reno to east Sparks.
"We have the skiing, we have the golfing, we have the hiking," said Cashell. "We've got this great river right in our backyard.
"I'm looking forward to seeing it used as an attraction for tourists to Reno as well as the residents here who enjoy kayaking and other water sports," he said.
The city, along with the Eldorado and Harrah's hotel-casinos, each put up $500,000 so work on the project could begin this summer. Ultimately, funding will come from a statewide bond Nevada voters approved in November for wildlife, open space and recreation projects.
The state tourism commission projects the whitewater park could draw as many as 50,000 kayakers and twice as many spectators a year.
The whitewater attraction will give Reno a rugged edge in competing with other gambling towns and expanding Indian casinos for vital tourist dollars, officials said.
"Slot machines just don't do it anymore," said Gary Carano, general manager of the Silver Legacy and Eldorado hotel-casinos.
Harrah's Chairman Phil Satre agreed, saying the project is a "rewriting of Reno and northern Nevada."
Hunt called the park a "real coup."
"It's the only kayak slalom course in the world with an urban corridor of this magnitude," she said. "The return on this investment is going to be huge."