Beyond the Fences

Can a stadium really help revive a downtown? In Reno, it’s happening right now.

The 1 millionth fan to walk through the turnstiles of Reno’s 3-year-old Aces Ballpark on May 13 was a 3-year-old from a town 60 miles away.

Just five years ago, few parents would have thought to travel an hour to bring the kids to the destitute and often-dark corner of East Second Street and Evans Avenue. There was nothing nearby to draw attention—at least not the positive sort—and if you were looking for bright lights and headed east, away from downtown, only Renown Regional Medical Center offered refuge. Now it’s bobblehead giveaways, seventh-inning stretches and little girls with red, white and blue ribbons in their ponytails. The ribbons are the colors of Reno’s first Triple-A baseball franchise, the Aces—the top affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

On the day little Liam Bottom of Fallon became the millionth fan to enter the ballpark, the Pacific Coast League team had played 159 games in the 9,100-seat park. Northern Nevada cognoscenti once doubted the team would ever draw an average of even 4,500 fans per game. But despite a depressed local and state economy, the team has averaged about 6,300.

SK Baseball, headed by managing partner Stuart Katzoff, purchased the Tucson Sidewinders franchise in 2007 and opened Aces Ballpark in 2009. In 2010, Katzoff, along with his father, Jerry (a real estate and restaurant mogul), and partners Herb and Steve Simon (whose business interests include the NBA’s Indiana Pacers), opened the $100 million Freight House District. The district adjoins the ballpark and is just a four-block walk from the casino core. “At the time SK Baseball came in, the economy was starting to sink,” Councilman Dan Gustin says. “Getting people to invest that amount of money downtown was really significant.” The district features a Mexican grill, an ale house and a sports bar. There’s a rooftop deck where patrons can catch a few innings of the game, as well as hear live music Thursday through Saturday after the final out. The ballpark has impacted the area’s older businesses, too. At Louis’ Basque Corner restaurant, new owners have added seating, expanded the bar menu, made the place more accommodating for kids and dealt with the inevitable game-night parking-lot logjams.

Meanwhile, a new regional bus station has opened on a 2.5-acre site at Fourth Street, two blocks north of Aces Ballpark. Renovation began on the 15-story Jones Vargas Center office tower across the street from the stadium, drawing tenants ranging from a trendy pizza restaurant to a major leasing company.

The ballpark and the Freight House District are “a catalyst for surrounding redevelopment,” says Peter Wallish, Reno’s economic development manager. In 2006, the site, filled with empty lots, cheap motels and a lonely Reno Fire Department station house, generated almost no revenue. According to a preliminary study conducted by Reno before opening day, the ballpark was projected to net $4.78 million annually in new expenditures among both area residents and visitors.

Nevertheless, the $58 million stadium needed a boost from the Legislature. Tax revenues from local properties have fallen precipitously, and the city has been unable to garner expected contributions. A bill passed on the Legislature’s final day allows the Aces’ ownership group to add a surcharge, pending Reno City Council approval, to ticket, parking and concession sales in a bid to meet debt obligations on the facility.

The ballpark has drawn spectators from throughout Northern Nevada and eastern California, says Chuck Alvey, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. That could mean a continuing renaissance for the area—a minor-league version of the changes the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park brought to a gritty industrial waterfront.

“It’s now part of the fabric of downtown,” Gustin says. “It’s driving people back downtown. It’s a microcosm of what’s going on in San Francisco.”

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