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Dreaming up downtown

Terri Harber
Appeal Staff Writer
BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal John Davis owns the building in downtown Carson City that houses his business, Java Joe's, and his wife's dance studio, Western Nevada Performing Arts. Davis is part of a committee working to improve downtown prior to the Carson City freeway opening expected in 2010.
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When the light is just right, shadows play off the concrete etchings that decorate Carson City’s freeway soundwalls. The looming structures tower above homes and businesses situated near them in an almost surreal way.

Though the artwork and eventual landscaping will help, it’s still a freeway.

The first 4.5-mile section is to open to traffic in 11 more days, providing some of the 40,000 cars that now pass daily through downtown with alternative routes through Carson. By 2010, the highway will bypass downtown entirely.

How much business comes downtown from people driving by? No one knows for sure.

The city and downtown businesses are betting, however, that business will improve once the corridor is transformed into a more welcoming, slower-paced environment. They believe locals will come to the area more often if it becomes easier to get there and – if they properly prepare for it – more tourists will consider it a must-see destination.

“We have only three or four years to plan what we want downtown to look like,” said City Manager Linda Ritter.

Businesses come together

Java Joe’s has been pouring coffee for the city’s Gen-Xers and public employees since 1994. The seating area with a mix of wooden tables and chairs and homey stuffed furniture, also provides a highly caffeinated haven for casino workers seeking a respite from the noise and blinking lights that dominate their workplace.

“I love downtown,” said John Davis, owner of Java Joe’s. He also owns the building where he does business. His wife runs a dance studio upstairs.

“I don’t see the bypass as a threat. I see it as an opportunity,” Davis said. “When you talk about downtown revitalization in Carson City, we have a pretty nice place to start. Some downtowns are faced with total blight, but we have a large group of professionals down here working.”

He would like to see the college put its theater downtown. Or see someone put in a movie theater or other performance center.

“We need some type of anchor besides the casinos,” Davis said. “Go to the movies and then go out to eat, or go hear a band and then go out to eat.”

The idea is to get people coming downtown for as many reasons as possible. And, once they are there, to keep them there spending money.

This is why an array of downtown businesses – big and small – are coming together, this time as a downtown business group that still is yet to be named. Its tentative title: Old Town Merchants Association.

The casinos are footing a large chunk of the bill for initial promotion materials. This allows the smaller businesses to more easily afford to participate. Surrounding businesses support the casinos and vice-versa, because supporting one another can only help business, said Kristy Servati, marketing director for the Carson Horseshoe Club, a downtown casino that also offers food and drinks.

Sticking power?

Affiliations created to draw together downtown businesses have come and gone over the years. This time, however, it is believed the latest group to form will have staying power because representatives from the downtown casinos have become involved, taking a leadership role in initial efforts to develop an association, said Joe McCarthy, the city’s economic development and redevelopment manager.

The group, which includes Java Joe’s and the Carson Horseshoe Club, is putting together a brochure highlighting all types of businesses downtown situated near the casinos, government buildings and historic structures, such as retailers, restaurants and museums. The brochure refers to the group as “Old Town Carson City,” though Servati emphasized that it, too, is still a working title.

“The name is important because we’re essentially branding part of the city,” she explained.

People should expect to see the brochures soon.

“By the time they do divert the traffic, we want to be prepared,” Servati said. “We don’t believe the bypass will hurt us at all – most of our business is locals.”

The casino has been open since 1973. Jeanette Cheney now runs the family business. This year, focus will be on refurbishing the building. New tin ceilings are going up inside. By midyear, work on the outside of the casino should begin, including installation of a new horseshoe sign.

The Horseshoe, Cactus Jack’s and the Carson Nugget together offer gamblers approximately 1,000 gaming machines.

Agent of change

“This is a special moment in time with the building of the freeway,” McCarthy said. “Carson City has a unique opportunity in Nevada, with its blend of historic buildings, offices, restaurants, government and casinos.”

The city has been assisting downtown businesses in their efforts to unify. A significant portion of downtown is classified as a redevelopment area, bordered by Mountain Street to the west, Roop Street to the east, Corbett Street to the north and the southern tip of the Carson Mall. This opens up funding possibilities, such as tax increment financing, as well as possible state support and federal dollars for public improvements.

What the city would like to do is narrow Carson Street to two lanes, at least the portion that travels through downtown. A business route to pull trucks off Carson Street and further ease traffic running through downtown is also a consideration.

Making downtown more pedestrian-friendly with parking on Carson Street, updated street lighting and more plazas is also a priority, McCarthy said.

Carson City has been unable to make changes to quell traffic downtown because Carson Street, Highway 395, is a federal highway. When the freeway opens in 2010, the city will be able to make those changes.

Cosmetics won’t be the extent of downtown changes. It will take new zoning rules to make downtown a dynamic business climate once the freeway opens: An urban code.

Mixed-use projects and the introduction of condominiums, townhouses, apartments and lofts into the downtown business district will be important to the area’s future. As more residents live downtown, they will want a mix of businesses: “Grocery stores, restaurants, entertainment venues,” McCarthy said.

Seeking consensus

Downtown is the focus of several goals for 2006 by the Carson City Board of Supervisors. The city’s master plan devotes a substantial amount of attention to the heart of town.

On the city’s to-do list: Examine code amendments that will accommodate improvements, such as new business development; create a five-year investment plan for downtown; and provide additional parking.

“The freeway will be an absolute asset to downtown,” said Mayor Marv Teixeira, who has watched Carson City’s downtown transform from the city’s business hub to an area that residents “want to avoid as much as we can.”

“That type of traffic is a deterrent to business,” he said. It’s particularly unsafe for pedestrians. Along with everything else being hatched for downtown, he believes one thing will make the business climate there better: “When you can cross the street safely.”

Teixeira pointed to the city’s growing senior population as one group who might see the possibilities in living close to downtown.

People, as they age, are getting out of their homes and moving into condominiums and townhouses. If the right types of amenities can be added downtown, it would be a place “for people to come to,” he said.

“A vibrant downtown shows the whole city is alive. It’s the city’s core. It has to be healthy,” Ritter emphasized. “Say someone wants to move a business here. It’s an economic development tool for the rest of the community. It’s a reflection of the community.”

— Contact reporter Terri Harber at tharber @nevadaappeal.com or 882-2111, ext. 215.

Glossary

Redevelopment: “A locally driven activity that assists local governments in revitalizing their communities. Redevelopment encourages new development, creates jobs and generates tax revenues in declining urbanized areas by developing partnerships between local governments and private entities.”

– California Redevelopment Association

Tax increment financing: “A way for governments (usually municipal authorities) to help finance new capital projects by taking advantage of expected property tax returns. A city, for example, may designate as a TIF district a plot of land that is planned to be redeveloped. Then the city can borrow against expected increased tax revenues to build infrastructure such as sewers and transportation services.”

– Wikipedia

Mixed-use development: “A development that combines several uses in one complex – for example, shopping center, office tower, hotel, residential complex, civic center and convention center.”

– Retail Management

Information Center

Urban code: “A physically based code that visually describes the building’s volume, articulation and relationship to the street – its building type. This code should ensure that all building types are pedestrian-friendly, and that buildings are located near buildings of similar type. It should also specify the building’s alignment, in order to shape public spaces.”

– Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Northeast University