District’s history an effort in redevelopment
Carson City’s redevelopment district has at least one obstacle no other district in Nevada faces.
Of the 488 acres in the redevelopment district, 161 acres are owned by the state, city, churches and other entities that are tax exempt. Another166 acres of the district is made up of streets, which are also tax exempt.
For a district funded solely by property taxes, the loss of more than half the taxable property to streets and government is a challenge. Redevelopment districts in cities such Reno and Sparks earn millions to put back into their district each year. Carson’s district earns thousands.
Despite the handicap, the district has raised about $2.5 million since 1986 and millions of private dollars have been poured into improving the district. Long before the idea of using redevelopment to attract Costco at Carson City’s far south end, the district was formed in 1986 to deal with a downtown effectively devoid of business.
Its boundary is gerrymandered, bounded roughly by Fleischmann Street and Corbett Lane on the north, Mountain Street on the west, Tenth Street and Little Lane on the south and Roop Street to the west.
The district does extend along Highway 50 as far east as Saliman Road, encompassing all of Mills Park. It is 488 acres containing Carson’s historic heart.
Downtown has its own problems – a perceived parking problem, traffic congestion, it isn’t particularly pedestrian friendly. But it’s better now than 10 years ago and a different world from that of 15 years ago, say redevelopment proponents.
In the late 1970s, Carson City fell prey to suburban sprawl and the shopping centers that come with it. As shopping centers began to locate on larger parcels away from downtown, businesses and people who frequented the area left too.
The exodus of business from the city’s urban center in the late ’70s and early ’80s left a downtown full of empty stores and deteriorating buildings.
“It looked like a slum,” Community Development Director Walt Sullivan said.
A 1980 cultural study of Carson City noted downtown’s condition was aggravated by removing parking along Carson Street, noise and pollution generated by traffic, vacant and abandoned buildings, and lack of new construction continuity.
Mary Walker, city finance director from 1986 to 1998 and redevelopment director starting in 1993, said downtown was so bad in the mid ’80s banks wouldn’t give loans to businesses trying to locate downtown.
Tom and Linda Johnson were turned down for such a loan. The building that houses Java Joe’s at 319 N. Carson Street was their first downtown business attempt in 1986. They were drawn to the area not only because they liked to fix old buildings, but because “there was an opportunity to make money,” Tom Johnson said.
“It was a beautiful building,” Linda Johnson said. “It needed renovation and we could see the potential for bringing it together. But the downtown was red-lined. Banks wouldn’t give loans downtown. It didn’t matter that you were a good credit risk. We had to go to a nontraditional lender to get that money.
“There were some great buildings downtown. If you restore a great building, people will see the value and then maybe people wouldn’t judge Carson by its downtown.”
With a downtown full of “sleazy bars,” people started talking about ways to revitalize area.
“Downtown really wasn’t reflective of what was going on in Carson City,” Tom Johnson said. ” Downtown was dying, but Carson City was growing. Downtown created a terrible image for Carson City, and you can’t have that for a capital city or any city. It takes vision and courage to invest in in downtown and make it better.”
Local architect Art Hannafin helped with Carson’s initial redevelopment efforts.
“Downtown was a wreck,” Hannafin said. “It was truly blighted and very unpromising. It looked like hell, but its time had come. In an effort to figure out what to do, we latched on to redevelopment.”
Redevelopment laws were introduced to Nevada law in 1959 to help fix “blighted” areas.
Nevada law has several definitions for blight, including buildings that aren’t safe or have defective design; economic dislocation, deterioration or disuse; inadequate streets, open spaces and utilities and land or buildings basically underdeveloped or underused
Carson’s downtown fit the definition in several ways. It was merely a matter of fixing it.
“The infrastructure was antiquated,” Redevelopment Director Rob Joiner said. “The sewer and water lines and sidewalks were the oldest in the city. Literally within a block of the state Legislature we had no sidewalks. It was embarrassing.”
In the early ’80s the city hired a consultant to help form a redevelopment plan for Carson City. Consultants and a committee of Carson residents and city officials helped build a plan that set boundaries for a redevelopment district and found a way to fund future redevelopment.
Redevelopment is funded from taxes paid on the increase in value of the property in the district.
Say a property owner paid $5 in taxes on $500 in property in 1986.
If, after being placed in a redevelopment district, the property increases in value to $600, the owner’s tax bill would go up to $6, but the $1 difference would go to redevelopment, instead of the government.
In 1986, the value of the 488-acre district was $43,280,990. Government entities continue to divide that share while the increase – $11,202,398 this year – goes to redevelopment. The tax rate is about $2.51 per $100 assessed value. The redevelopment district will collect about $281,000 this year.
Assessor Kit Weaver said if state and city parcels were subject to taxation at least $1 million extra dollars would go to the redevelopment district.
The initial plan pointed out that officials needed to deal with upgrading the core infrastructure, parking facilities, increasing sidewalk size, renovating many pre-World War II and 19th century buildings, recruiting businesses, decreasing traffic congestion and finding streets that could be closed to create “superblocks.”
“We have the smallest blocks in the world,” Joiner joked.
Perhaps Carson’s downtown blocks aren’t the smallest in the world, but when Abraham Curry designed what is now downtown Carson City, he wasn’t contending with the car. The redevelopment study noted that “no city in America is know to have a land area devoted to streets greater than that found in Carson City.” Streets take up a huge portion of the district and the study examined which could be closed to increase traffic efficiency on Carson Street.
The plan was approved by supervisors in 1986, and a district with a lifespan of 30 years was established.
IMPLEMENTING THE PLAN
With a plan in hand, the Redevelopment Authority was formed – not of city supervisors, as it is now, but of residents. The district’s first few years brought little money and projects “weren’t sexy”, Joiner said, but the authority managed to improve the infrastructure, sidewalks and benches among other small projects. Things were improving slowly, but there wasn’t a lot of momentum to move forward on big projects.
When Walker took over as redevelopment director in 1993, it marked a turning point for the district.
“The downtown area was at a real standstill as far as business,” Walker said. “Even if you could fix up your property, the property next door was depreciated. People didn’t think they would get their money back if they developed in downtown. There was no team to gather a joint vision for downtown.”
Walker organized the Redevelopment Authority Citizen’s Committee to help generate ideas, and started working on some long-term projects.
“We looked at a downtown facade program, but I said downtown would have pretty frames but would still have 1940’s infrastructure,” she said. “I wanted to save downtown historic buildings. We didn’t want Disneyland or fake ambiance, we wanted real downtown historic Carson City.”
Walker organized the $1.1 million Main Street Beautification Project, which placed landscaping, antique gas lights and wrought iron fences separating the sidewalks from Carson Street along 11 blocks of the city’s center from Fifth Street to Washington Street. Former mayor Marv Teixeira came up with the idea of direct monetary incentives, and thus was born the redevelopment incentive program.
The program put government in a position of helping private business by offering 20 percent not to exceed $100,000 of the total cost of a redevelopment project.
To get the incentive program and beautification program rolling, the city sold a $2.5 million bond in 1993 to stimulate growth.
“We did the beautification, had the incentives and then we had something to sell,” Walker said. “The effort was to create a product. Until you had a product, no one would come downtown.
“We did 22 projects in the first three years (after the bond money). I’m so proud of that. People have forgotten what downtown used to look. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with little dollars.”
Since 1993, about $800,000 was given to businesses as a direct monetary incentive. Projects include the St. Charles Hotel, Brewery Arts Center, the Horseshoe Club, Carson Jewelry and Loan, Sierra Land Reality and several other projects. Joiner estimates that since 1990, 700 parking spaces have been added in the downtown area. Downtown events like the Ghost Walk and Farmer’s Market are funded through redevelopment.
NOW AND IN THE FUTURE
Redevelopment Authority supervision passed to city supervisors in 1993. The citizen’s committee was recently reorganized and is still working at finding ways to improve the downtown area.
Recent projects include the $70,000 Telegraph Square at the intersection of Telegraph and Curry streets. The Golden Spike is a shell of its former self, with about $100,000 of incentive monies waiting its completion. New projects along Tenth Street are coming soon, which will add to redevelopment district coffers.
About 18.5 acres of land near Fuji Park was added recently to the redevelopment district, marking the district’s first expansion since its inception. The land is the potential site of a 145,0000-square-foot Costco warehouse and gas station, and the land and improvements could give redevelopment a boost of $80,000 a year.
But redevelopment committee members aren’t content to sit on their laurels.
Everyone interviewed said the challenge for the coming year, at least, is to do something with the abandoned Lucky Spur building on the corner of West Procter and Carson streets.
Redevelopment Authority Chairwoman Robin Williamson said the citizen’s committee needs to reevaluate their goals for downtown. She’d like to see distinctive signs for the historic downtown area and the addition of a marker that is distinctive to Carson City. Continuing the Telegraph Square theme along Curry Street is on her priority list as well.
Hannafin still serves on the citizen’s committee and said he hopes to see downtown extend beyond Carson Street. More events would bring more people to the district as well, he said.
“The framework is there now for furthering development downtown,” Hannafin said. “Now we need to encourage lateral development. We’ve changed things. The Main Street stock of buildings have been redone, owners are doing more and the alley ways are cleaned up. Little things count because one thing stimulates others.
“Nothing breeds success more than success. Once you’re on a winning streak, people want to be a part of it.”