The New Reno: Yes, Virginia, There Is Gentrification

renoI’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that Reno has historically not been one of my favorite places to visit. But I spend a fair amount of time passing through, because my brother and his family live nearby, in the ski town of Truckee. Flying into Reno is convenient for anyone wanting to visit Lake Tahoe.

For years, my brother, Mark, has been telling me that Reno is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, what with the implementation of Wingfield Park – the city’s kayaking park that runs through downtown – and the Truckee River Walk with its galleries, cafes, and brewery. But don’t worry: Reno is still The Biggest Little City in the World, rife with the requisite prostitutes, crack houses, tattoo parlors, pawn shops and all the unsavory characters one would expect to find.

Yet, I discovered a younger, gentler, hipper Reno over Thanksgiving when I was in Truckee. Reno is trying to dial down its hard-core gambling, all-you-can-eat, come-all-ye-societal-fringe-dwellers rep. The most noticeable change is the gentrification underway along the South Virginia Street Corridor, the major north-south business artery. The street is paralleled to the east by a mix of decrepit and charmingly restored Victorian and Craftsman homes. Housing, Mark says, is ridiculously affordable.

I did a book signing over the holiday off South Virginia at a bustling new cheese shop, Wedge. A lovely addition to the area, Wedge has an excellent selection of domestic and imported cheese, as well as house-made sandwiches, specialty foods and primo charcuterie. Want a good, affordable bottle of wine, some soppressata, and a hunk of award-winning, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin? Wedge has it.

When Mark and I arrived at the shop, he commented on how much the area was changing, citing the soon-to-be-open wine bar, Picasso and Wine, next door. The employees cheerfully agreed that there were lots of exciting developments underway, but that “there’s a crack house just two doors down.” They weren’t joking, either. We were parked in front of it.renoClose to Wedge is Midtown Eats, an adorable, farmhouse-modern cafe, and Crème, a sweet breakfast spot specializing in crepes. Get lunch at popular soup-and-sandwich spot Süp, imbibe (and eat) at Brasserie St. James brewery, Craft Beer & Wine, and mixology geek faves Reno Public House, and Chapel Tavern (over 100 whiskeys on shelf!). Making dinner in your rental ski cabin or condo? Visit the Tahoe area’s only Whole Foods.

If you’re in need of some sweet street-style, hit Lulu’s Chic Boutique or Junkee Clothing Exchange. If it’s your home that’s in need of an inexpensive upgrade, Recycled Furniture is the place. As for those tats and street drugs? You’re on your own.

Future plans for the South Virginia Corridor include greater emphasis on facilitating more pedestrian-friendly walkways, public spaces featuring art installations, fountains, and benches, and street-scaping. Gentrification may not always be welcome, but for Reno, it’s the start of a whole new Big Little City.

[Photo credits: Reno, Flickr user coolmikeol; bike path, VisitmeinReno.com]

Reno’s ‘Cheese Truck’ Subject Of Quirky Documentary

“Reno, Nevada. The Biggest Little City in the World. Famous for our casinos, quick divorces, and legalized prostitution.”

So goes the opening narration to “The Cheese Truck,” a funny little documentary made by Jason Spencer of Storm Front Productions. The 26-minute film follows what amounts to a day in the life of GourMelt owners/drivers/cheese geeks Jessie and Haley, as they feed Reno’s hungry masses.

This gem of a film caught my attention for three reasons: I just flew in from Reno last night, after spending a week in Lake Tahoe visiting my brother and his family; I work in the cheese industry and did a book signing at Wedge, Reno’s new (only?) cheese shop, six days ago, and I couldn’t believe someone had made a movie about Reno’s on-trend food scene. Ouch.

“The Cheese Truck” may also gently poke fun, but its objective is to show viewers how much work goes into operating a food truck, as well as highlight Reno’s Renaissance. As my experience at Wedge also showed, there are a lot of fun things popping up in the Biggest Little City, especially the South Virginia Street Corridor neighborhood.

Look for more details on the second coming of Reno next week. I’ll tell you where to find a great bottle of wine, used combat boots, and handcrafted soppressata, amongst the tattoo parlors and crack houses.


The newest hidden cost in travel: taxes

Cities and states are pumping up their coffers at the expense of visitors. Unemployment has led to a fall in income taxes, and with consumer spending off, sales taxes aren’t bring in what they did in the past. So, municipalities have had to look elsewhere.

And, travel is a great place to start!

How can a city or state raise money without incurring the wrath of its own voters? You guessed it – travel taxes. Hotels and rental cars are favorites, because the likelihood of nailing a resident with the tax is low. While you’d think that these additional fees would keep tourists away, it’s not likely. There are probably a handful of tax activists out there who’d rather dump tea in a harbor, but it’s unlikely to be the minority.

Last year, hotel room taxes brought in $14 billion, but the take is expected to fall this year, even with the higher rates proposed. After all, hotel occupancy rates are at their lowest levels since 1956 – a sluggish 55.5 percent – according to PKF Hospitality Research.

Who’s getting in on the action?

Hawaii: the hotel room tax hit 8.25 percent on July 1, 2009 (up from 7.25 percent) and will go up to 9.25% a year from now.

Nevada: Las Vegas is pushing the hotel room tax from 9 percent to an insanely high 12 percent! Why isn’t Reno‘s room tax being pushed to 12 percent? It can’t … because it already is 12 percent.

New Hampshire: the “Live Free or Die” state bumped its hotel room and restaurant tax to 9 percent (from 8 percent) and has stretched it to include recreational vehicles at campgrounds.

Massachusetts: look for the ol’ “Taxachusets” jokes to come back with a 50 percent increase in the hotel tax (from 4 percent to 6 percent) and an increase in the restaurant tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent. Cities can add another 0.75 percent to the latter if they like.

New York City: as if the March 1, 2009 hotel tax increase to 14.25 percent wasn’t enough, the city will hit internet reservations for a bit more tax revenue.

“Rule of 3″ suffering in Thailand’s red light districts

The bar girls in Patpong, a destination for so-called “sex travelers,” have a basic rule: three inches (duh), three minutes (duh), 3,000 baht (that’s around $87).This year, they can add another “3″ to it, one third. That’s roughly how far tourism revenues are expected to fall in Thailand this year. A projected 35 percent drop means less business and less income in what is largely recognized as one of the most disreputable parts of the world.

Recessions are felt at every level. One local bar girl took a pay cut from $232 a month to $174. She had little choice, as customers are scarce. Regular customers are trimming back on their carnal habits, and foreign guests have fallen by around 20 percent.

And, it’s not just Thailand.

The Czech Republic, which has a fairly accepting attitude toward prostitution – 14 percent of check men have admitted to this sort of frolic – has seen up to half of the brothels outside Prague close in the past year. There have been layoffs, as well … even in Nevada. The famous Mustang Ranch in Reno has had to lay of 30 percent (another “3″!) of its workforce, thanks to high-rollers who aren’t spending as liberally.

As with more traditional destinations, travel deals are emerging, such as $111 for as much as you can consume in an hour at one location in Hanover, Germany. A club in Berlin is a bit more generous, with $98 for six hours – in addition to access to the sauna, solarium and a (food) buffet.

I’ll pass on the “stimulus package” joke. Too easy.