RENO, Nev. -- Just over a decade ago, this northern Nevada community that has long billed itself as "The Biggest Little City in the World" had a seedy reputation.
It had a stagnant economy, a deteriorating business sector and few job possibilities.
Since then, however, an ambitious downtown renovation ($37 million for street repairs alone), an expansion campaign at the University of Nevada at Reno campus, a housing boom fueled by the state's burgeoning population, a new art museum and a thriving casino and resort community have helped change all that.
Last summer, in fact, the city placed No. 3 on Men's Journal magazine's list of the nation's 50 best places to live, and it broke into the top 10 (at No. 9) on Hotels.com's list of most-requested locales for lodging reservations.
All this is coalescing in a city that only two years ago marked the centennial celebration of its incorporation as a city.
Riches to rags and back to riches in just 100 years.
Need more evidence of the Reno boom? The city also is ranked No. 7 in Inc. Magazine's "Best City in Which to Start and Grow a Business." And this community named for a Civil War general moved up an incredible 23 places from last year to No. 22 nationally on the annual Forbes/Milken Institute ranking of "Best Places for Business and Careers."
Another of Reno's smart moves is being neither foolishly dependent on gambling nor stubbornly independent in marketing itself. Depending on which public relations campaign you pay attention to, the area is referred to as Reno-Tahoe or Reno-Sparks, Sparks being an adjoining residential and casino town that shares convention facilities with Reno.
The Tahoe reference takes advantage of Reno's proximity to Lake Tahoe, the year-round mountain resort mecca that straddles the California-Nevada line just 40 miles from Reno.
A Tahoe connection also goes a long way toward reinforcing the point that Reno, unlike sweltering Las Vegas 340 miles to the south, is truly a four-season climate where it actually snows and temperatures fall into the single digits in winter.
In fact, taking advantage of the outdoors after generations of trying to keep people in the casinos can be seen in the form of a new 24-mile whitewater recreation corridor include a kayaking slalom course through downtown.
Does that annoy casino owners who like people at the slots and the tables as often as possible? It's doubtful. Harrah's and Eldorado together contributed $1 million toward the $22 million project, which startd last tsummer.
Comparisons between Reno and Las Vegas are inevitable because of the legal gambling attraction of both cities as well as Americans' legendary ignorance of geography. But the differences are many, not the least of which is the matter of proportion: Vegas' population is triple that of Reno's 138,000.
Vegas and surrounding Clark County have always been about gambling, ever since mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel supported construction of The Flamingo in the 1940s and got the laid-back casino business really rolling. Washoe County up here in the north has long been and remains cowboy country, despite all the gambling dens. The city is virtually ringed with working ranches large and small. People wearing Stetsons and work clothes downtown or in the outlying malls isn't an affectation. Neither are the numerous pickup trucks, which actually are used for work.
The Reno skyline probably isn't what a first-time visitor, particularly one used to the glitz of Vegas, might expect.
The city sprawls in all directions, but towering casino hotels are few in number -- the 1,300-room Peppermill, the 600-room Atlantis and the 2,000-room Hilton among the most prominent.
In Vegas, the proliferation of gaudy casinos that sprang up on Las Vegas Boulevard drained the money away from its downtown. But Reno's downtown -- and its smaller buildings -- is still its main draw, as are its many wedding chapels, pawn shops and quick-cash car lots, a triumvirate of businesses that illustrates the gamut of love and luck.
Parking rates downtown are reasonable ($2 for a four-hour stay is common) and encourage walking tours, particularly on Virginia Street -- the main drag -- and nearby side streets.
The older, major casinos are tightly clustered, such immaculate places as Circus Circus, the Eldorado, and the Silver Legacy -- where a gorgeous collection of silver objects once owned by one of the region's silver mining barons is on permanent display in the ornate lobby.
You don't have to gamble at any of these spots to have fun. Periodic free entertainment is provided, the numerous buffets offer a wide range of food at cut-rate prices, concerts and art shows are frequent and the people watching is primo. Or you can stroll down to the National Bowling Stadium to watch the latest tournament.
Just south of the casino cluster is the Riverwalk, where concerts and art shows are common along the Truckee River, which bisects the city. Amble just a few blocks off Virginia Street and you can see one of two spectacular museums.
The Nevada Museum of Art's new facility opened on West Liberty Street in May with an exhibition of the renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera and other 20th Century Mexican art.
Two blocks off Virginia, on Lake Street South hugging the river, is the National Auto Museum, also known as The Harrah Collection. The collection, the largest of classic cars and trucks in North America, is enough to make any car buff drool. From such examples of art and engineering as Ferraris, Corvettes and Pierce-Arrows, you can jump to some of the earliest American-made working vehicles and race cars.
A short drive, bus or cab ride to the university campus takes you to the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center, located on one of the ridges created by the local "bowl" topography.
Because of northern Nevada's low light pollution, the dark night sky makes it a stargazer's paradise. On clear Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year, visitors to the planetarium's public observatory can scan the skies through a C-14 telescope free of charge.
Of course, for the price of a ticket you can see a lot of other stars as well. George Carlin, Jeff Foxworthy, Jay Leno, Meat Loaf, Olivia Newton-John, Vince Gill and Willie Nelson are among the entertainment luminaries who have appeared in recent months.
ON THE WEB
• Reno - Lake Tahoe vacation guide
• Nearby Virginia City
• Official visitors' guide
• City of Reno official Web site
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