Bill Kidder: The days of bonanzas
Dan Mooney, in his thoughtful commentary, suggests “spirit” is a fitting word to describe the importance of a healthy downtown, and suggests Carson City residents don’t understand, and therefore despise, the actions of the Board of Supervisors, because the proponents “didn’t clearly and convincingly explain and justify their vision” and “residents didn’t participate …”
Mr. Mooney is right, but there’s a large and vocal group of residents who resist any change. This group has fought change to downtown since Dick Graves came to Carson City from Idaho in 1954 and started the Nugget. Carson City was then in steep decline, with 4,172 residents — 700 less than it had in 1890. During his first week in business Graves had to run an ad in the Appeal that pleaded, “Please help us bring more tourists to Carson City. Don’t shoot down our advertising balloon.” The city responded by putting in parking meters, trying to outlaw promotions, and refusing to reimburse Graves when he paid $35 for snow removal.
Lucius Beebe, the famed editor of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, watched what Carson City was doing and ran an editorial on Aug. 20, 1954, that pointed out, “The best current example of what ‘dubious foreign capital’ can do for a community is in Carson City itself, a community of great charm and background which over the years has resolutely been attempting to commit suicide. It allowed its judicial chambers to be removed elsewhere, it took no heed when its railroad was sold for junk, and it concertedly resisted all and any attempts of interested persons to revive some of its historic atmosphere and past glory. Carson wanted nothing of any sort of enterprise except to bitch when somebody else showed any.”
Beebe went on to say, “The Nugget has simply saved the state capital from going down the drain to complete oblivion. More money passes through the local bank than has been seen in 50 years; more tourist trade is beguiled from the highway and their money put in useful circulation in Nevada than can be recalled by the oldest inhabitant. The Nugget, far from eliminating competition in Carson, has brought in so much business that every other establishment at that end of town is feeling a substantial lift in its business. If this can be contrived, the days of the bonanzas are far from over.”
Dick Grave was wildly successful in Carson City for five years, but he eventually took his vision (and his restaurant manager, John Ascuaga) to Sparks. Fortunately for Carson City, Hop and Howard Adams continued Graves’ vision and downtown continued to prosper for five decades. Now, on the heels of a recent depression and legalized gambling in 48 states, we have a downtown with acres of vacant lots, motels turned into homes for the less fortunate, and the Ormsby House, Jack’s Bar, and the Horseshoe Club serving as its monuments.
Fortunately, Carson City has another chance. Mae Adams, through the Hop and Mae Adams Trust, did not just take the money and run, but left her vast holdings in downtown Carson City for the betterment of its residents. Steve Neighbors has persevered in interpreting her dream; owners have continued to put sweat and equity into their business against great odds; and, Mayor Crowell and the Board of Supervisors are finally making something happen.
We all have our feelings about the Carson Center plan. Personally, I would rather see us stay true to our history and use the space allocated for the skating rink and farmer’s market for a small hall that could be used for a variety of concerts, lectures and events — much like the historic Opera House that once stood virtually on that spot, and where Mark Twain once lectured.
My main concern, however, is for what is not in the plan. To be healthy, downtown needs a massive return of tourists. We have all the parts to make this happen — the State Capitol, the State Museum, the Laxalt Building, the Governor’s Mansion, stately old homes, the Brewery Art Center, two historic casinos, beautifully restored old buildings, several good restaurants and bars, and more.
What we don’t adequately promote our incredible history — Mark Twain, the V& T Railroad, our Native American heritage, our Chinese history, our mining history, the historic old prison, John Wayne’s last movie location, and on and on. We also poorly promote our fantastic location within 30 minutes of Tahoe and Reno, and a short drive from crowded, expensive and stressed out California.
We are also missing a huge amount of retail downtown that would bring back locals and tourists in droves. Why not turn the Horseshoe Club into a great buffet? Why not make the Ormsby House into the classy hotel with restaurants its namesake was a century ago? More casinos will never bring tourists back to Carson City. We need retail that used to be downtown and is largely missing in the city, like a book store, a music store, an ice cream parlor, a toy store, a children’s clothing store, a sweet shop, a pizza hangout, local arts and crafts, specialty clothing stores, and so on.
In my opinion, a revitalized downtown would not be just Carson City’s spirit or soul. If done right, it would be the city’s pride and economic engine. To play on the famous line from “Field of Dreams,” if you build it right, they will come!
Bill Kidder is a former retail executive, newspaperman and real estate broker. He is currently working on a history of gambling in Carson City. He can be reached at Billkidder@charter.net.