Can the north of Carson City rise again?
Every now and then a car passes Toni Langson’s storefront in the Northtown Shopping Center, three doors down from the sprawling former Super Kmart that has been empty for about seven years.
Most of the time though, those cars are simply taking a short cut, headed for College Parkway after avoiding the stoplight on North Carson Street, she said.
“I don’t know what to say other than it’s pretty bad,” said Langson, who has run Little People Portraits, 3246 N. Carson St., in the Northtown Shopping Center with her daughter since 2000.
The shopping center is largely empty near her store, which has seen two more businesses, including Eagle Valley Fitness, pack up and leave for other locations in the past year.
Many retailers in the area say business along North Carson Street has been struggling for many years now – Carson RV recently shut its doors – especially since the focus of the commercial market turned its sights on south Carson City about a decade ago.
Of course things still are happening on the north end of town, including Carson Stadium Cinemas opening in the Northgate Shopping Center this summer and a Reno developer buying the former Kmart with plans to eventually open something there.
North Carson Street also was home to the city’s largest-ever construction project, Carson Tahoe Regional Healthcare and the growing medical community budding around it. It also has nearby Western Nevada College and the Silver Oaks development.
But Gary Harper, who has owned the Sub Factory, 2589B N. Carson St., in the Northgate Shopping Center for 17 years, said things are not what they used to be.
The last time his shopping center was completely filled was 1997, he said. And while Northgate has seen new additions in the last two years, including Harbor Freight, “the north side of town is a little bit – empty,” he said.
Langson said the down economy has played a role in the area’s troubles – parents are not bringing their children in for portraits as often as they used to, for example – but she can’t help but notice that north Carson City is in a funk.
“I think they’ve neglected this end of town,” Langson said.
The 1970s was a boom time for north Carson City.
Frontier Plaza was expanding and so was the Northgate Shopping Center, the former home of Wallace Theater and Straw Hat Pizza, which later became Geno’s Pizza, which is now closed.
“Back in the late 1970s it was the north end of Carson that spurred development,” said City Manager Larry Werner. “That was really a shining spot of Carson.”
But with the development of Eagle Station, “it flipped back south again,” Werner said. “The latest insurgency has been the south end.”
David Theiss, owner of Butler Gourmet Meats, 1909 N. Carson St., said his shopping center, the Frontier Plaza, more than doubled in size throughout the 1970s.
His butcher shop, which he has owned for 27 years, is the oldest tenant in the shopping center. Over the years, Theiss said he’s seen the waves come and go.
“In the early ’70s it was here,” he said. “It was moving out in this direction.”
The latest boom was in the 1980s and early 1990s when Kmart moved from the current Lowe’s location in south Carson City to the Northtown Shopping Center. It closed in 2003 when the company declared bankruptcy, shuttering hundreds of stores nationwide.
“I would love to see the box store open up in Kmart and push more people down this way,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of populace in this general area.”
The growth in south Carson City started earlier last decade when the city began its campaign to keep the auto dealers from moving to Douglas County, Werner said.
“That was one of the scariest times we’ve had in this town,” said Joe McCarthy, the director of the Office of Business Development.
The saga started when city officials and local auto dealers considered creating an auto mall in Carson City around 2003. The city rejected a proposed $27.5 million incentive package to lure a California developer to construct the auto mall on land off of Hot Springs Road.
After the deal fell through, Michael Hohl of Michael Hohl Motor Co., and a partner put a winning bid on a 144-acre parcel of federal land in north Douglas County with the intent of building their auto mall there.
“That put the city in a real bind because we were going to lose our No. 1 retail development… the auto dealers,” McCarthy said. So the city created a redevelopment district along south Carson Street to create what later become seven-figure tax incentives for the auto dealers, including Dick Campagni, to refurbish and rebuild their businesses.
Hohl and Campagni opened their new dealerships along South Carson Street this year while those 144 acres in north Douglas County, cleared of sagebrush, lies undeveloped to this day.
Other major developments have happened along South Carson Street this year, too.
Carson Lanes has completed a total makeover, adding restaurants and a new sign. Major retailers are filling long-time empty boxes, including Kohl’s, which opens next week. Big Lots will fill the box next to Burlington Coat Factory, the location of the former Walmart.
There is also talk of two more national retailers filling empty locations near Clearview Drive and Koontz Lane. Meanwhile, Aarons Sales and Lease Ownership is expected to move from their north Carson City location next door to Mi Casa Too in the next few months into a new building that will sit where the former Carpet Barn used to be.
Other major developments on South Carson Street in the past 10 years include the addition of Costco, the Casino Fandango, the Galaxy Fandango movie theater and the Courtyard at Marriott, which opened in 2008.
A new dynamic
The opening of the freeway bypass has affected business along North Carson Street, for better and worse.
“We’re doing really well, our sales are up, our guest counts have increased,” said Sara Kirkpatrick, the general manager of Denny’s at 2299 N. Carson St.
She said when the bypass opened the restaurant did experience a slowdown, but this year it seems like it’s turning a corner.
“It’s like people have decided to go against the bypass,” she said.
Theiss of Butler Gourmet Meats in Frontier Plaza said the reduced traffic counts have actually been a blessing for his business.
“It’s easier to get across town,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Andie Wilson, a commercial broker with Coldwell Banker Premier, said South Carson Street is perceived to be the hot buy for many businesses looking to expand in Carson City.
“It’s a perception that is difficult to overcome,” Wilson said. “And the thing is, retailers who are opening now are smart retailers. Kohl’s, they picked that building up at the right price. That was a smart buy.”
Still, there are plenty of opportunities along North Carson Street, she said.
“It’s going to take a couple of years for north Carson to come around, but that’s where you’re going to see visionary retailers leasing and buying space,” Wilson said.
But those changes may not include city redevelopment funds, which played a significant role in south Carson’s resurgence. The Board of Supervisors in July voted to indefinitely suspend the program.
“We’ve got kind of a debate going on whether or not redevelopment should expand and on top of that we have the legislature that last session made a run to basically do away with that,” Werner said.
For now, south Carson Street is likely to continue growing, McCarthy said: “You’ve got 60,000 cars a day buzzing by those places.”
He adds, “Enough good things have been done in town that over a period of time you’re going to see (north Carson City) go through a resurgence, we should be confident that the market place will in fact adjust itself to that area, which is more locals serving retail, more medical office,” McCarthy said. “It’s got a different feel now. It doesn’t have a big traffic count anymore so it has to adjust itself to a different dynamic.”
The door suddenly opens at Little People Portraits. A teenage girl walks in, Langson wonders if it’s a potential customer.
“I was wondering if you guys needed any help,” she asks.
Langson lets her know that the shop is not hiring. The girl leaves.
The door closes behind her.