Reno casinos look to river to deliver tourists

Posted: Thursday, June 12, 2003

RENO, Nev. It was heresy not long ago for a Reno casino owner to encourage gamblers to pry themselves away from the slot machines and enjoy the great outdoors.

But a growing number of business and community leaders here say the key to weathering increased competition from tribal casinos in neighboring California is to promote hiking in the Sierra, rafting on the Truckee River and mountain biking at Lake Tahoe.

The latest push is a 24-mile whitewater recreation corridor that would include a kayaking slalom course through downtown Reno.

Harrah's and Eldorado hotel-casinos have each agreed to match the city's $500,000, making available a $1.5 million loan to begin building the $22 million project this summer.

''For Reno to do this shows how Reno is changing. Reno is no longer a senior slots center,'' said Ferenc Szony, president of the Sands Regency hotel-casino.

''There is world-class skiing and mountain biking and golf courses. In 20 minutes travel time from any hotel, you can be fly fishing on the Truckee River in a secluded area,'' he said.

''If you gamble, you gamble. If you don't that's OK, too.''

More casino executives now share that thinking primarily because market research shows it's no longer an either-or proposition.

The so-called paddle sports represent a ''very desirable demographic,'' said Jim Litchfield, an avid kayaker who is a member of the Truckee River Whitewater Steering Committee.

''Our research shows it's the 25 to 54 age group, educated people, often someone with a family with a household income of $75,000 to $125,000 who is ready to spend money on recreation,'' he said.

''To a casino, it's a guy with disposable income who thinks he can beat the house.''

Kayaking has enjoyed a 50 percent increase in the past four years and is ranked as one of the nation's five fastest growing outdoor activities among households with annual incomes over $50,000, along with cross-country skiing, canoeing, rafting and mountain biking, according to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association in 2002.

More than 33 million Americans now participate in whitewater sports, said Bruce Bommarito, executive director of Nevada's Commission on Tourism who is a former vice president at Caesar's Tahoe and worked at a casino resort in Biloxi, Miss.

''Gambling revenue is supported by all kinds of things fishing, festivals, backpackers, river rafters. They all gamble, too,'' Bommarito said.

''Gambling brings in the most money in Las Vegas, but if you ask people why they go there, the top answers they give are for the shopping, eating, the shows,'' Bommarito said.

''It gives people more reasons to come to an area. And the reason the area here is so incredible is that any direction you look, you see mountains.''

The state of Nevada and the Reno-Tahoe area have stepped up marketing the outdoors in recent years.

A $3 million statewide campaign launched a year ago touted Nevada as the ''Wildest Adventure State in the Lower 48.'' The Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority has dubbed the Reno-Tahoe area ''America's Adventure Place.''

The theme was used to help lure ESPN's ''Great Outdoor Games'' to Reno this July. The chamber of commerce says the television exposure will showcase the area the same way golf's Reno-Tahoe Open has since landing a stop on the PGA Tour in 1999.

The Truckee River also has been the focal point the past eight years of July's ''Artown'' festival, featuring arts and cultural exhibits and performances. A park and amphitheater on a downtown island is the site of the whitewater park that would welcome rafters and inner-tubers, too.

Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, a former nightclub singer who performed in Reno casinos in the 1960s, predicts the park will bring international attention.

''This river I always considered an overlooked treasure of Reno, one that has been taken for granted,'' Hunt said.

''It will be the only kayaking slalom course with an urban core. It will be a major, major shot in the arm economically. I think when we look back in two or three years, we'll see this as a key turning point.''

The river, which empties out of Lake Tahoe at an elevation of 6,200 feet and winds its way 40 miles down the Sierra's east front to Reno, has not always been so valued.

In years past, it was used as a dumping ground for trash and sawmill waste. It was best known for its great floods more than a dozen documented since 1861. The last on New Year's Day 1997 did about $700 million in damage to Reno and neighboring Sparks.

''The river was viewed as a hazard, not an amenity,'' said Lynn Zonge, a former Grand Canyon river guide who moved to the Reno area in 1989.

Zonge has been kayaking for 20 years in Alaska, Arizona, Guatemala, Mexico and Utah. And while the Truckee can't match the grandeur of the Grand Canyon's Colorado River, it ''is beautiful, has clean water and is extremely accessible,'' she said.

''It goes through rural and urban settings. You can get in and out easily,'' she said.

That's a big plus because most of the world's kayaking hotspots are in remote locations, Szony said.

''You have to trek all over the place, over the river and through the woods, and maybe you're lucky and come back to stay at a Motel 6,'' he said.

''There just isn't anywhere in the world where you can get out of your kayak and walk over and get a latte or walk a block to your room with a hot shower.''

Concerns about competition from tribal casinos have intensified in Reno over the past five years.

Fifty-one ''Class 3'' tribal casinos with slot machines operate in California, including the successful Cache Creek casino an hour west of Sacramento.

On Monday, the biggest threat to date opens at Auburn about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento the Thunder Valley Casino, a $215 million, 200,000-square feet Nevada-style casino with as many as 2,000 slot machines and a 1,200-seat show room.

An industry consultant told the American Gaming Summit in Las Vegas in January that Reno is ''the most vulnerable community in the United States'' to the spread of tribal casinos.

''It will have great difficulties in maintaining its market share,'' said Steve Rittvo, president of The Innovation Group in New Orleans.

William Eadington, an economics professor who directs the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, was one of the first to sound the alarm.

The verdict's still out on whether activities like a kayaking can attract enough outdoor enthusiasts to offset the expected drop in visitors from California, Eadington said.

''It is no silver bullet, but every little bit helps,'' Eadington said. ''Rafting, kayaking, golf, etc., are all part of this, but can they neutralize the loss of customers to Thunder Valley and Cache Creek?''

Bommarito said most tribal casinos cannot match Reno's combination of casinos and recreational opportunities.

''The last 10 years in the business, the idea has been to have a cluster of casinos and a cluster of activities around them. The Indian casinos will all be single properties,'' he said.

Szony said it is time new ways were found to market a town once known as the divorce capital of the world.

''Twenty years ago, Reno's tourist-based economy didn't need the river to be a key element. Being a very regional gaming destination was enough,'' Szony said

''But with tribal gaming on the rise, we are no longer the casino of convenience geographically.

''We need to be a getaway destination for the region where people want to come and stay for two or three days. There's a whole recreation side that nobody really thought of Reno for in the past.''

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