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Burning Man project makes 'last bet' on saving Reno's old weekly motels

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The Biggest Little City is evolving. Once a town better known for gaming and quick divorces, it’s now a destination for outdoor recreation and tech businesses.

This, of course, has led to people. More people. Housing price are soaring. And land for growth is getting harder to find.

That has developers eyeing the city’s older weekly motels. They say that demolishing or rehabbing the motels removes blight while increasing the housing stock.

But those motels also serve as homes for some of the community’s most vulnerable residents. And of all places where this is coming to a head, it’s at the annual Burning Man festival.

It’s called the Last Bet Motel project. It’s a collective of people who plan build a multi-room installation on the playa to spur conversations around the effects of gentrification.

Emily Stewart is the social media manager for the Last Bet Motel project Elizabeth Fitzpatrick is the project manager. They recently talked to Paul Boger, State of Nevada’s producer in Northern Nevada.

"Right now, Reno is sort of in this really tragic position where most of these motels and a lot of the low-income housing is being torn down by California real estate," Fitzpatrick said. "The art piece, we're creating the Last Pet Motel signs, that's a 12-foot-tall illuminated sign, and underneath it, it says 'no vagrancy' on one side."

Stewart said they saw a particular motel in Reno being torn down, which was "heart-wrenching." The motels were the last step before the streets, she said, "Where do these people go?"

Burning Man is not a cheap festival for attendees. Is it possible the message gets lost in the crowd?

"There are a lot of people there with power and privilege to make action and change things and use their resources to protest, and I think it's also important because so many people from all over the world pass through Reno on the way to Black Rock City, but they don't stop to think about the community that they're passing through, that they're using the resources of, and how all of these people are affected by it," Fitzpatrick said.

Emily Stewart, social media manager, Last Bet Motel;  Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, project manager, Last Bet Motel

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Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.