How to get your development project approved in Nevada


Reading this column can make you rich. Here in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream, the road to wealth and power is paved with grease and juice. It's a slippery path for the uninitiated, but after you read the following, you will find yourself speedskating on icy glass toward the emerald city of fame and fortune.


The secondmost masterful job of greasing the skids I ever saw involved the development of the Smith Ranch in southeast Reno. As the downtown casino overlords have done for decades and continue to do, the founders of Harold's Club bought up huge chunks of S. Virginia Street real estate as insurance against a Las Vegas-style strip developing as a competitor.

The Smith ranch site now includes Meadowood Mall, the two large strip shopping centers across McCarran to the north, and all the office and apartment buildings adjacent to the main center.

After the entire area had been built up, Duffel Financial walked over to the Reno Gazette-Journal and unveiled the grand design. Had they done so upfront, the citizenry would have shown up with pitchforks, torches, tar and feathers. As it turned out, there was only minor opposition when Meadowood Mall itself went up for approval in the mid-70s.

Duffel had shrewdly observed the fate of others who made the mistake of being upfront and honest with the public. In the early 1970s, McCulloch Oil announced acquisition of a huge amount of land in Palomino Valley north of Sparks for a major housing development.

Out came the usual suspects with the usual buzzwords: "Thirty thousand instant new homes! Cancerous, uncontrolled growth! Quality of Life!"

In retrospect, the building of those dwellings over 20 years, the actual goal, would have represented planned growth as opposed to the mini-San Jose this area has become. McCulloch had the right idea, just the wrong public relations. Oil-Dri is currently in the process of committing similar suicide. Its kitty litter mine and processing plant, also in the north valleys, lie in critical condition.

After years of trying and millions in expense, McCulloch gave up. Duffel did not make the same mistake.


When a dirty job needs to get done, who you gonna call? Barbano.

In 1976, the Washoe County Commission and the Reno and Sparks city councils quaked in their collective booties. The county was set to impose a major new property tax hike and the public had to be informed.

One Reno councilman was assigned to contact local PR firms to see who was up to the task. None of the big boys would touch it. So I got the call.

You can't believe the grim faces in the room when I walked in to get the assignment. These politicos were looking down into their open graves.

The officeholders had no choice. Nevada law says properties must be re-appraised at least every five years. The Washoe County Assessor's office had fallen far outside that threshold. Some downtown Reno casinos had not been re-assessed since 1962.

The late, great Russ MacDonald was a no-nonsense guy. The brilliant lawyer and Washoe County manager came up with a high-tech solution, a computer-assisted appraisal program. With the CAAP online and easily comparing property sales countywide, valuations, and thus taxes, would increase just a bit every year. Mandatory onsite appraisal would still be conducted every fifth year. That process is still in use today.

What scared the bejabbers out of the pols was the anticipated one-time jump when the program went online. No wonder no PR firm wanted the job. How do you spin the news of a major tax increase?

I first talked to the number one TV news department, which ironically had just gotten wind of the story. I explained the issues and set up an interview with the assessor.

Did the world explode? Nope. One TV report all by itself has little impact. The public pays attention only when many media simultaneously run the same story.

Next, I contacted the Reno Gazette-Journal and Sparks Tribune to set up appointments for the following week. The RGJ ran the story on the front page more than 10 days after the first TV station. During that time, I went to another TV news director and took advantage of scheduling conflicts and a little luck. Production got postponed from one week to the next because the designated reporter's news van broke down. They called with apologies, hoping I wasn't too inconvenienced.

I continued the same pattern of contacting selected media over an elongated period. No public outcry ever happened. All the pols were re-elected that November. In December, the assessor expressed his amazement. Not only were there no calls for his head, but appeals of increased taxes based on the new property valuations proved very few.


About 1982, the Centennial Plaza was announced as a major resort hotel which would eventually grow to 3,000 rooms. It pre-dated the Las Vegas theme casino boom of the late 1980s and would have made this area a world class destination.

Reno at the time was the only major western tourist city with no first-class hotel rooms within walking distance of its convention facility. Even today, only the Atlantis undercuts that dubious distinction, and it's far too small to meet demand.

The Centennial was supposed to stand across from the convention center in the same area now hosting a hodgepodge of shopping including Wal-Mart (soon to add a Sam's Club), Office Depot, Circuit City, Starbucks, Applebees, Claimjumper, Chevy's and Borders Books.

Gazette-Journal columnist Cory Farley wrote that taking such prime property for shopping centers represents the single worst use. He reported a study which showed that these developments take more in services than they return in taxes.

Politicians running for office in 1983 made the Centennial Plaza the symbol of uncontrolled growth. Opponents won. Supporters lost. The land was sold off for strip malls, Reno hotels permanently fell behind the competition curve and no casino strip ever developed.

There you have it, all for the price of a newspaper. All I ask in return for your newfound wealth is an occasional invitation to dinner overlooking the private pier at your Tahoe mansion. The properly nouveau riche don't want to live down here in the cluttered Truckee Meadows.

Be well. Raise hell.

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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org/ Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988 .

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