Three competing visions of future for Carson City

Today, I want to congratulate city officials and planners for initiating a comprehensive "Envision Carson City" study to consider future growth patterns for our historic capital city. Because important decisions will be made as a result of this study, more local citizens should involve themselves in the process and consider the alternatives.

During Monday's presentation of three possible Carson City growth scenarios at the Community Center, I was impressed by the planners' attention to detail, taking into consideration such factors as growth patterns, parks and recreation, business and employment, housing and neighborhoods, fiscal/economic implications, and retail strategy. Make no mistake about it, these are Big Questions for our town. In a nutshell, here are the three scenarios:

n No. 1 (Compact Growth): Designed to accommodate a population of between 70,000 and 75,000, this plan features growth focused on existing or underutilized areas within the city, limited expansion of fringe urbanized areas and higher-density redevelopment in selected areas, including more downtown housing units and a few high-rise buildings.

n No. 2 (Mixed-Use Activity Centers): For a population of 75,000 to 80,000, this plan focuses on new mixed-use commercial and residential activity centers at the eastern edge of town along Highway 50 East and other major traffic corridors, such as the new Carson City bypass.

n No. 3 (Urban Expansion): This plan, which envisions a population of 70,000 to 75,000, contemplates a continuation of current growth patterns, densities and land use, along with future utilization of some vacant lands and "some hillside development." Although this plan is favored by builders and developers, I oppose it on grounds that our hillsides should remain pristine for aesthetic and flood-control reasons.

One major decision that will come out of this study involves economic development. Will city officials concentrate on retail establishments, which finance local government through sales taxes, or will they continue to permit willy-nilly development featuring low-end casinos and sleazy payday loan centers? In other words, what will be the future symbol of Nevada's capital city: an historic state Capitol building or a hillbilly hotel-casino topped by a 200-foot-high flaming oil derrick? Take your pick.

I don't want to be unfair to Max Baer Jr., who played the dim-witted Jethro on television 30 years ago, but I don't think his proposed Beverly Hillbillies Hotel-Casino fits any future scenario for Carson City. As Appeal business writer Becky Bosshart noted in her detailed analysis of Jethro's ambitious project, a large Sam's Club on the old Wal-Mart site at Southgate Center would probably generate at least three times more annual revenue for the city - $920,000 vs. $292,000 - than Jethro's hillbilly hotel, not to mention increased social costs involving additional police protection and low-cost housing for 600 minimum-wage employees at the new casino.

That's a strong argument in favor of retail development, and it's why city supervisors should enact a gaming moratorium (as Sparks did) while they recruit additional retail establishments. According to reliable reports, Wal-Mart has offered Baer considerably more than the $4.3 million he allegedly paid for the 12.8-acre site in mid-2003, despite deed restrictions prohibiting a hotel-casino on the property. Baer sued the Glenbrook Corp. (the property owner) and the J.C. Penney Co. later that year to remove the deed restrictions, but lost in district court; meanwhile, a valuable retail parcel remains vacant. Apparently, Jethro plans to hold his breath until he gets his way.

Baer's defenders, some of whom suffer from CWS (Celebrity Worship Syndrome), argue that he will build a classy establishment that will attract thousands of tourists to Carson City - "a very elite resort," as one Appeal letter-writer put it. But "classy" and "elite" aren't words that come to mind when I think about a tacky hillbilly hotel equipped with outhouses featuring exploding toilets. OK, I exaggerated the part about the toilets, but you get the idea. Is this the image we want to project to the rest of the state and nation? I don't think so.

My friend and fellow columnist, Bob Thomas, a highly successful businessman, commented on Baer's project last year. "I can't imagine anyone investing in such a venture in the face of Indian gaming uncertainties and the fact that there aren't enough local gamblers to go around," he wrote. "The (gambling) pie is finite, and it's going to be dog-eat-dog." Is it ever, especially after the remodeled Lucky Spur brew pub/casino opens downtown this fall and the historic Ormsby House reopens by next year, if its major reconstruction project remains on schedule.

I think Carson City has already reached a saturation point as far as gambling is concerned. We need retail establishments, not more casinos, in order to finance necessary public services, including police and fire protection, for a burgeoning population. Our symbolic choice is between a silver-domed Capitol building and a flaming oil derrick as we look to the future. In my mind, that's an easy choice. How about you?

n Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, has been a legal resident of Carson City since 1962.


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