Many states have two major cities. California has Los Angeles and San Francisco. Missouri has St. Louis and Kansas City. Tennessee has Nashville and Memphis. And in most cases, the cities are quite different historically, economically and culturally.
A glance at Nevada’s two major cities, Reno and Las Vegas, might suggest an anomaly — that they are, in fact, quite similar. But in a new book, longtime UNLV history professor Gene Moehring argues that this is not the case.
In Reno, Las Vegas, and the Strip: A Tale of Three Cities (University of Nevada Press), Moehring compares and contrasts the development histories of Reno and Las Vegas to explain how and why Las Vegas surpassed Reno to become the nation’s undisputed gambling capital.
There are several reasons, most of them rooted in an underlying cultural distinction: Reno saw rapid growth as hurting quality of life, while Las Vegas saw rapid growth as improving quality of life. Moehring quotes Carl Abbott, a prominent historian of the urban West, to the effect that Reno saw its community more as a “residential environment” while Las Vegas saw itself more as an “economic machine.”
Over the years, Reno politicians and residents have battled the growth forces much more aggressively than has happened in Las Vegas. The result has been slower and more labored development of Reno’s gambling and tourism infrastructure. And while Reno studied, cogitated and fought, Las Vegas bulldozed, built and populated what has become a valley of megaresorts and 2 million people.
Certainly, Reno’s predominant “managed growth” mindset has left some pondering how things could have gone differently for the Truckee Meadows. If it had embraced a sprawling casino strip of its own, outside the cramped downtown, perhaps its resort industry could have grown bigger and more competitive. If local battles had not delayed the construction of Interstate 80 by several years, perhaps it could have drawn more tourists. If it had built hotel rooms and convention facilities sooner, maybe it would have kept pace with Las Vegas.
“The missed opportunities are probably what upset Reno-area boosters such as Jud Allen the most,” Moehring writes. “Whereas Las Vegas gamers exploited every chance that came along, much like a wily card player in a game of gin rummy, Reno’s leaders missed their share of opportunities.”
For example, in the late 1970s, Disney developed an elaborate proposal to build a wilderness theme park in the Sierra. The project likely would have attracted thousands of families for outdoor adventures, and Reno would have been the main economic beneficiary. Government agencies and environmentalists opposed the project, but Reno officials did little to advocate for it.
Of course, most Reno residents are unlikely to perseverate on questions of what could have been, because they never wanted their city to become more like Las Vegas. Reno has always been more concerned about its reputation than Las Vegas. Buttressed by a history and identity that long preceded Nevada’s legalization of gambling in 1931, its residents never wanted to live in a “sin city” or grow into a metropolis.
Despite their differences, Reno and Las Vegas have mirrored each other recently in the area of downtown revitalization. Both cities have seen considerable success by mining the opportunity in remnants of their railroad origins.
In Las Vegas, the city took over Union Pacific’s abandoned 61-acre rail yard. An array of businesses and cultural institutions has sprung up in what is now called Symphony Park, highlighted by the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
In Reno, the catalyst was the massive ReTRAC project. A huge two-mile trench was dug so that trains could move through the downtown area without interfering with street-level business. As an added benefit, the project created 120 acres of land for new downtown development.
Reno also has taken much better advantage of its greatest asset: the Truckee River. Where once the city turned its back on the river coursing through the central city, the Truckee today is an integral part of the downtown experience. Swimming, kayaking and fishing are popular summertime pursuits at the Truckee River Whitewater Park, which is surrounded by restaurants, shops, art galleries and theaters.
In the wake of the Great Recession, both Las Vegas and Reno are seeking a more diversified economy. Reno has had more success thus far, attracting substantial investments by tech industry leaders such as Apple and Tesla. But if history is any guide, when Las Vegas gets its chances to diversify, it will do so on a larger scale than Reno could imagine — or desire. 

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