The biggest little city becomes the best small city due to the final closure of the famous Harrah’s of Reno, on Sunday Readings.
Reno has just experienced an unusual event: its past met its future in the third week of June. The death of Harrah’s Reno has meant that Reno is now the Best Small City in the land.
The Biggest Little City becomes the Best Small City
In a moment of extreme sadness for many in Reno, on June 5, Harrah’s Reno officially ceased to exist. The building itself remains, but not the name or the casino, named by its founder after his family.
Tired of dodging or paying off law enforcement officers in California, Bill Harrah came to Reno in 1937 and opened a bingo parlor here. Harrah wasn’t unique in moving to Nevada to avoid the hassle of operating gambling in other states; Benny Binion, Sam Boyd, Warren Nelson, Jim Graves and, of course, Bugsy Siegel came here to ply their trade. It was a logical decision: Nevada was, after all, the one place in the country at that point where gambling had been legalized.
Over the course of his life, Bill Harrah made casino gambling in Reno respectable, even attractive. His bingo halls and, later, his casino and hotels were as good as he could make them. He used the best materials and practices and sought to deliver the highest quality of service and experience. As long as he lived, Harrah strived for perfection. But Bill Harrah died quite some time ago, in 1978, and the company then passed into a corporate world with a series of corporate managers. Although some of its managers still paid lip service to Harrah’s Reno being the crown jewel of the corporation, the property ceased to be important to its corporate bosses. Beginning in 1988, gaming spread to other states, and the Harrah’s brand expanded also. Meanwhile, back home on the ranch, Reno’s casinos fell behind the new jurisdictions as the city’s former customers found a game closer to home.
Still, Reno, and Harrah’s Reno in particular, might have continued to be somewhat relevant if it had not been for Indian gaming. Indian casinos, particularly those in California, took away Reno’s feeder markets; dozens of casinos closed in the wake of the launch of Indian gaming. By the first decade of the 21stcentury, Reno and its casino industry were becoming old and tired, unable to compete with the newer, glitzier casino jurisdictions. Both the city and the industry seemed headed toward a very dismal future.
However, Reno caught a break. In 1998, a developer bought a parcel of land east of Reno and created an industrial park that was planned to eventually become the largest industrial park in the world. It attracted warehousing and distribution centers and then it caught the eye of Tesla. In 2014, the governor of Nevada signed a tax incentive package intended to bring Tesla’s Gigafactory to Reno. It worked, and the presence of Tesla attracted other high-tech companies to the area. All at once Reno was no longer a worn-out casino town, but a bustling high-tech center. Whole districts in Reno redeveloped with trendy new identities. There was, however, an exception: the downtown city core, which remained largely the same, littered with fossils of its once glorious past.
When the latest corporate acquisition/merger involving Harrah’s was announced, the property’s fate was sealed. Eldorado is acquiring Caesars, the parent company of Harrah’s Reno, and Eldorado already has three properties in downtown Reno. It does not need or want another. And so, 83 years after Bill Harrah first opened Harrah’s Club, it’s now closed for good. In an ironic twist of fate, it was the same week that Reno was named America’s best small city. Harrah’s was Reno past. The best small city appellation marks its future.
Since it was founded in 1868, Reno has had many identities. It has been a center of mining and of farming, a waypoint for transcontinental traffic, a national divorce destination, and a casino town. Each of those eras, as they happened, served to define Reno but were ultimately forgotten in the march of time and changing identities. The once bustling Casino City was the latest in that line. It also lasted the longest, and some vestige of it will probably survive as long as gambling remains legal in the state. But Reno is no longer a casino town. Now, in fact, it is a town with a few casinos.
Reno’s new identity is a product of 21st century technology and cultural trends. In time, even the downtown casino core will get a makeover. The process has already started: the Flamingo Hilton, the Sundowner, and the Comstock Hotel and Casino have all become condominiums. Harrah’s Reno will also become one of those trendy places to live with retail and entertainment on the ground floor. At least, that is what the advanced publicity always says. The change is not a thing to be bemoaned; it should be celebrated, and the city’s new identity embraced.
Reno has had a resilience that other cities, like Atlantic City, Detroit or Tunica, Mississippi, likely envy. Reno is rebounding once again, being reinvented, moving ahead. Reno has gone from being the Biggest Little City in the World to the Best Small City in the Country. The first title we gave to ourselves, and the second they gave us because we are just so cool.
Bill Harrah would have been proud, even while he mourned the death of his dream.
What a country!