Tourism-driven Virginia City tries to support merchants, keep crowds at bay
Every year, Virginia City sees up to 1.4 million people — from near and far — funnel into its historic mining town tucked in the hillside of the Sierra Nevada.
That won’t be the case this year.
Since the state shut down non-essential businesses in mid-March amid, the only thing rolling into Virginia City — filled primarily with tourist-packed bars, restaurants and shops — have been tumbleweeds.
“It became very dark here in Virginia City,” Deny Dotson, tourism director of the Virginia City Tourism Commission, said in a phone interview last week with the NNBW. “It became very still and quiet — almost like a true ghost town.”
With the state entering phase one of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “Roadmap to Recovery for Nevada” on May 9, the lights are slowly turning back on in the tourism-driven town located 20 miles southeast of Reno.
Dotson said roughly 75% of Virginia City merchants opened their doors on May 9 while abiding by the state’s guidelines, which includes limiting capacity to 50% and a requirement that “all employers shall require employees who interact with the public to wear face coverings to the maximum extent practicable,” according to the state.
Under phase one, Nevadans are still encouraged to maintain six feet of social distancing and limit public gatherings to 10 or fewer people.
Cutting the allowed occupancy in half is undoubtedly a tough challenge for any business in Nevada to overcome. The fact rings especially true for merchants in Virginia City, a town of less than a thousand people that relies heavily on tourists to fuel its economy.
Nevada’s travel and tourism industry — which accounts for 40% of the state’s general fund revenue, according to the Nevada Resort Association — has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. According to personal finance website WalletHub, Nevada ranked third highest in a recent study of which states’ tourism industries have suffered the most during the COVID crisis.
“We’ve been basically relying on the locals,” Dotson said. “We couldn’t actively market visitation to Virginia City. We tip our hat to our locals, we came together as a community and they supported the ones that were open.”
Despite strong local support, Dotson said Virginia City’s revenue is projected to be down 25% for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Zooming out, he’s projecting a 40% drop in revenue for the forthcoming fiscal year.
He added: “That’s provided we still have a decent summer.”
In terms of marketing, Dotson said Virginia City tourism officials are “walking the tightrope” of continually promoting the historic town and supporting its merchants while also being “very careful” not to attract too many visitors to town.
“It’s an awareness that we’re here,” he said. “We always want to continue to do that. But, if we get too many people here, we get in trouble with the standard of ‘no large groups and no more than 10 congregating.’”
SPECIAL EVENTS EFFECT
This is an extraordinary challenge for a community that is accustomed to holding an array of special events that lures large crowds to town. Dotson said he is hopeful that Virginia City will be able to continue on with its special events slate in the fall.
The town already took a big economic hit after canceling one of its signature events in March, the 29th Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry, which annually attracts roughly 6,000-7,500 visitors, according to previous reports.
Virginia City’s chock-full fall calendar includes the Virginia City Grand Prix and Chili on the Comstock (April and May events, respectively, that were moved to October), the Street Vibrations Fall Rally, International Camel and Ostrich Races, and World Championship Outhouse Races, among others.
“I think the biggest issue is if we have to cancel special events in Virginia City, it will be devastating for the town,” Dotson said. “We just have a whole bunch of stuff stacked for the fall. That’s going to be critical that we’re able to do those in a safe manner that protects our residents and our merchants, but also allows for visitation so that our merchants can benefit.”
Storey County Manager Austin Osborne agreed.
“For economic prosperity, events are essential,” he told the NNBW. “Right now, we want to have economic recovery up here, but at the same time create that balance where it’s protecting our residents.”
Osborne said county officials do not have a goal of “returning to normalcy” right now. However, he said they have been “fighting hard” for all of their local businesses throughout the pandemic, with an increased focus on the merchants that have to remain closed under phase one.
Additionally, Osborne said the Storey County Commissioners’ Office has been continually writing Gov. Sisolak’s office, “pleading” the governor to allow rural communities to reopen its casinos, bars and gymnasiums “with comprehensive plans for protection” in place.
“We’re not trying to regenerate our economy back to where it was six months ago,” Osborne said. “What we’re trying to do is allow our businesses to survive. We do not want our businesses to close their door permanently because they are not allowed to open.”