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John L. Smith On Nevada's Proposed Innovation Zones

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When Gov. Steve Sisolak touted the concept of “innovation zones” in his State of the State address as a way to boost the economy, not too many people actually knew what he was talking about. 


But with the Legislature in session, we’re learning more about a plan by Blockchains LLC., to create its own government on thousands of acres of land outside Reno. If it all comes together, residents will be able to use BitCoin currency in local businesses.  

“There’s a lot of rumors about it," contributor John L. Smith said, "There’s very little public information.”

Smith said that right now there aren't a lot of details about exactly how the zones would work, but it is an "innovative" idea. 

Smith believes it is keeping with a long tradition in Nevada of powerful people controlling the space around them.

From Governor John Sparks, whose vast ranch holdings made him the "controlling influence in Northern Nevada," to brothel boss Joe Conforte, who had "ultimate influence" over Storey County for many years, there is a long list of people who held incredible sway over huge swaths of land in the state, Smith said.

However, none of those people carved out a county just for themselves, he said, then again, they didn't need to because they held the horizontal and verticle of politics and business.

While the innovation zones idea is interesting, Smith said there are a lot of moving parts that he's not sure anyone has a handle on at this point. 

In addition to the details, Smith said that the Legislature is dealing with some pressing issues this session, namely the massive budget shortfall brought on by the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic.

“This would have to come neatly wrapped in a package," he said, "You’re already hearing pushback being reported from Lance Gilman, the very powerful political player there with his industrial park and his influence in Storey County.”

Smith believes the idea will be talked about during the session, but he's not so sure anything will actually get accomplished.

Tony Hsieh's death and the Downtown Project

The family of Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos, is putting his downtown Las Vegas properties up for sale.

Hsieh died in November after a house fire in Connecticut.

Besides moving Zappos headquarters to the old city hall, Hsieh bought property downtown and created the Downtown Project, which aimed to revitalize the city's urban core with an infusion of $350 million.

“I think a phase of [Downtown Project] is going away with Tony Hsieh’s absence,” Smith said.

While the former CEO didn't have a demonstrative public persona, Smith said he did have a powerful influence over the downtown area.

“I think that you have to look at his influence as something that moved that part of the community forward," Smith said.

The longtime journalist pointed out that it is important to remember what the area looked like before Hsieh showed up. Parts of Fremont Street were dilapidated, businesses were moving out and attorneys' offices were also relocating.

“You have a real turning point when Hsieh shows up with a big bankroll,” he said.

Smith admits there are arguments to be made about the results of the Downtown Project, but like other ambitious projects before it, it moved the area forward.

“The selling off of these properties might just spur the next chapter in the growth of downtown," he said, "People might be able to come in now and maybe they’ll make their own version of the new downtown.”

Changing the name of McCarran Boulevard in Reno

“I’m already hearing from folks who would love it to be Alan Bible Boulevard. They would love to see that name change to another Nevada native, who was such an influence at the Senate, who had a track record that did not include racism and anti-Semitism that we know that, of course, McCarran’s name carries with it nowadays.”

The Clark County Commission voted to change the name of McCarran International Airport to Harry Reid Airport because of Senator Pat McCarran's anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views. 

Smith is not so sure that will happen in Reno. For one thing, McCarran Boulevard is 23 miles long and loops around the city, which means a lot of businesses would have to change their addresses.

He is interested to see if there will a groundswell of support for changing the name of the street, but that brings up another question - Carson City. 

The state's capital is named after Kit Carson, a frontiersman known for his contribution to the westward expansion of the United States but also known for his brutal treatment of Native Americans - especially the Navajo.

“I’m not sure this conversation ever ends,” Smith said.


Black History Month and the Law in Southern Nevada:

“The late Charles Keller was one of the very first attorneys of color in Las Vegas. He got in trouble in 1960, when he had already been admitted to the bar in New York.

He was the head of the Brooklyn NAACP and came to Las Vegas at the request of Thurgood Marshall…so Keller gets to town and takes the bar exam and almost aces it.

He got such a good score that the bar exam folks thought that he must have cheated. They fought him for several years, all the way to the State Supreme Court. He wound up prevailing. He became a licensed attorney in 1965. He fought for civil rights throughout his life.

When people leave the stage, they tend to be forgotten pretty quickly. Charles Keller deserves to be remembered in our community because he was a very courageous soul, who stayed the course, and was a remarkable man.”

John L. Smith, contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.