Burner Boom: As Reno Reinvents Itself, It Looks to Burning Man

Jacobs Entertainment

Around this time of year, a deluge of fantastical images takes over social media: vehicles tricked out to look like animals or video game characters; people clad in outrageous outfits, or nothing at all; and surreal, giant sculptures with people clambering all over them, all against a stark and dusty landscape. Yes, it’s time again for Burning Man, the weeklong freewheeling event in the Nevada desert that takes place at the end of each summer. And bracing to receive most of the 70,000 attendees is Reno, the largest nearby city.

Once a second-rate casino town that suffered one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the nation when the housing market crashed, Reno has recovered dramatically with a vibrant and diversified economy. And as Burning Man grows steadily in popularity and cachet, its cultural influence—and its footprint—has extended into Reno. City officials have realized that they can capitalize on that association, and are weaving it into plans for Reno’s future.

The Burning Man organization itself, based in San Francisco, opened an additional permanent office in Reno late last year. Karen Jacobs, the office manager, was one of several staffers who made the move from the San Francisco Bay Area, along with her husband, who also works for the group.

Burning Man art sculptures are installed at the West Second Street corridor as part of the Reno Neon Line project by Jacobs Entertainment.

Jacobs Entertainment

“What I see and love about Reno, especially in the last couple years is, I think because of the proximity of Reno to Black Rock City, there’s so much art and sculpture,” she says. “I feel like Reno is very amenable to our culture.”

“We consider ourselves the gateway to Burning Man,” says Alexis Hill, manager of arts and culture for the city of Reno.

The mayor, she adds, is a big supporter of Burning Man.

“We’re just pushing to see arts and culture in every aspect of the city,” she says.

A half-mile walkway featuring installations by Burning Man and local artists will be a prominent feature in a new billion-dollar development that will transform 20 blocks of a formerly blighted section of downtown, according to the Wall Street Journal.

One of the first pieces, designed by San Francisco–based artist Charles Gadeken, was installed in July. The 50-foot-tall artwork, called “Squared,” is a treelike structure covered with white cubes that flicker with colored lights.

Rendering of Charles Gadeken’s 50-foot tree-like LED lantern sculpture “Squared”

Courtesy of Jacobs Entertainmentt

Gadeken, who has been attending Burning Man (and passing through Reno) for more than 20 years, points to the 2013 opening of the Generator, a 34,000-square-foot maker space, as a game-changer for the local culture.

More than 100 large-scale art installations and projects for Burning Man have come out of the Generator, 27 of which are on display in Reno, including the “Space Whale,” a life-size steel and stained-glass sculpture of a humpback whale mother and calf.

“If you thought of yourself as an artist and a fabricator and you made things, all of a sudden there was a space where you could build things, where before you couldn’t do that; it was only in San Francisco,” he says.

Reclaiming blighted spaces

Now, the Generator is set to relocate from Reno-adjacent Sparks to downtown Reno, where the city granted it a 99-year lease to a 4.5-acre blighted property. There, it has plans to build a $4.4 million community arts and performance center that includes 75 spaces for resident artists.

The Playa Art Park is another Burning Man art project that has transformed a patch of downtown Reno.

As executive director of Artech, a local arts nonprofit, Maria Partridge received grants from the city and Burning Man to create the temporary park in 2016 on a vacant lot that had housed two derelict motels, which were demolished. The site also happened to be across the street from the casino hotel Circus Circus, whose corporate owner was in the process of rebranding it and two other adjacent hotels as a Vegas-style megaresort called The Row.

Now, Partridge reports, the Playa Art Park is overrun by selfie-taking visitors who scramble over the sculptures (which are, indeed, meant to be climbed).

“What would have been an empty lot with a chain-link fence has been an art park for the last three years,” she says.

“You don’t have to love Burning Man to appreciate the cultural impact it’s had and the economic impact it’s had,” she adds. “You don’t have to love the event. You don’t even have to like the event.”

Michael Christian “Bloom” sculpture is being installed in downtown Reno’s Fourth Street

Jacobs Entertainmentt

A new direction for Reno

These high-profile projects are important to Reno, which is trying to reinvent itself, attract new business, and diversify its economy away from the hospitality industry, which tends to generate more low-income jobs. And its efforts are paying off.

“Reno’s reliance on leisure and hospitality has fallen from about 30% to about 15% in terms of employment,” notes Stephen Miller, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

A key driver of that recovery, Miller says, has been the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, which claims to be the largest industrial park in North America. Its highest-profile tenant is electric car company Tesla, whose enormous Gigafactory for lithium-ion batteries employed 3,000 people as of the end of 2018. Google is currently developing a 1,200-acre lot at the industrial center that it bought in 2017 for $29.1 million, for what is expected to be a data center.

The “Desert Guard” statue by Lu Ming installed at the West Second Street corridor in Reno

Jacobs Entertainment

As Reno’s fortunes rise, its lower taxes and real estate prices offer an attractive contrast to California’s pricey coastal cities. Realtor.com data shows that Californians dominated among home shoppers from outside Nevada who were checking out Reno real estate listings. The top hometowns represented were Sacramento (20.6% of views from out of state), San Francisco (18.4%), Los Angeles (6.2%), and San Jose (5.4%).

As the city prepares for more growth, the arts are a key part of its plans.

“We would all love to see developers have a requirement to do public art,” says Hill, the arts and culture manager.

Hill’s office landed a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest the state of Nevada has ever received, and most of it will go toward public art pieces. The city is interested in a “monumental” art piece, she says—the type of artwork, in other words, typical of Burning Man.

As a native of Reno, Hill says the festival wasn’t really on her radar growing up, but like other Reno residents, she has grown to appreciate it. She’s attended a half-dozen times, both for work and pleasure.

“It was seen as really counterculture and niche, and now it’s part of our community,” she says.

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Source: Housing Trends Feed