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Downtown Reno builds toward economic recovery

Fernando Leal, the man behind The Montage condominium project in downtown Reno, is not one to mince words.

"Horrific" is how he described the housing market to about 20 city and business leaders who recently hopped on a bus to tour construction projects under way downtown, courtesy of the Reno Redevelopment Agency.

But change is coming.

The tour bus stopped at a half-dozen construction sites, as well as at planned or recently completed projects. Particularly after the recession hits bottom, these "catalyst" projects will create jobs and spin off new businesses downtown, said Mark Lewis, redevelopment administrator.

"Seeing is believing," Lewis told the business leaders.

Tim Ruffin, senior vice president in Reno for Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm, said he was impressed with so many projects moving at once, creating construction jobs, as well as permanent jobs.

"Right now, we're lacking jobs. That's what is going to pull us out of this, is jobs," he said.

With all the projects planned, Ruffin said he can envision an entertainment corridor extending from the whitewater park at Wingfield Park to the baseball stadium and then north to the university.

But he said his gut feeling is it will take a couple more years to pull together.

"Given the drumbeat of all the negative, depressive (news), it was encouraging to see all of this," said Chuck Alvey, the chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. "You want to be up and running when the economy starts to recover."

The Reno Aces' Triple A baseball stadium is on a fast track to open April 17, the first of 72 home games that are each expected to bring at least 5,000 people downtown.

For a few moments, the tour group got to stand where the bleachers will be built and looked down to home plate. They saw where the dugouts and clubhouse are being built while steel columns are being installed for the stadium's upper deck.

"You can finally see the steel going up," said Rick Parr, the Reno Aces general manager.

Across several vacant blocks, construction will begin next fall for an entertainment district including shops and restaurants, said Stuart Katzoff, managing partner for the baseball/entertainment zone. Included is the historic Freight House that is to be renovated as a restaurant.

"We are using baseball as a catalyst to drive the rest of downtown," Lewis said.

The Waterfront Towers recently presented new plans for its condominium project northeast of Lake and First Streets, kitty-corner from the ballpark, Lewis said.

That block, including a closed section of First Street, has been fenced off for two years.

A six-story hotel is planned to start construction in the spring at Second Street, south of the baseball park. That project, by Basin Street Properties, most likely will be a Hyatt hotel, said Jessica Jones, a redevelopment agency staffer.

The tour bus stopped at the Reno Events Center and Ballroom that opened over the last two years to bring smaller conventions and concerts downtown.

And east of the National Bowling Stadium, the Regional Transportation Commission is excavating and grading for an entire block that will be the home of its bus transfer station.

The West Street Market, near the Truckee River, will include up to 17 shops and restaurants in three historical brick buildings. It is set to open Dec. 6, the first "hands-on" redevelopment agency project.

Two of the 17 tenants recently dropped out because of economy. One of those lost was an Italian restaurant planned for the rear building, Lewis said.

The buildings are linked by a new stamped concrete plaza where space has been set aside for a winter fire pit and that is be used as an outdoor market.

A riverfront plaza is planned to be built, possibly next year, at the downtown Post Office that the city is acquiring. The historical building would be renovated in two years after an extensive public process to consider its possible new uses.

Much of the work for a two-block plaza over the railroad tracks between the Montage and Virginia Street has been completed. Leal plans to submit a bid for building up to 30,000 square feet of shops and restaurants and finishing details to make the plaza come alive.

The business people toured the Montage. The former hotel-casino was stripped to its concrete and steel frame and then rebuilt at a cost of $170 million.

"We didn't skimp on anything," Leal said.

New home buyers almost are nonexistent now, Leal said. But he said he and his partners with L3 Development have been fortunate in keeping almost all the buyers who signed on months before the economy plunged. They represent 40 percent of the units.

With the credit freeze taking out competition for now and the slower market, Leal expects the 370 units to be sold over the next two to four years.

The Montage offers top-floor penthouses, studios and lofts in a price range of $180,000 to $2 million. On top of a lower roof is a little oasis: An outdoor garden with a swimming pool, clubhouse, lawns and water fountains. Other unusual features in the building is storage for river kayaks, bikes and other sports equipment.

The first tenants are expected to move in later this month.

Leal plans to close the Fitzgeralds hotel-casino Nov. 30 and renovate the building as boutique hotel. About 475 people will lose their jobs.

Leal and his partners also own the closed casino next to Fitzgeralds on Virginia Street, and the Masonic building, the city's oldest building, around the corner on Commercial Row.

"We have assembled enough land to create a critical mass," Leal said, in rebuilding downtown "I'm incredibly bullish on this market."

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