After years of construction work on Virginia Street and months of business shutdowns ordered by Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Reno’s Midtown district is beginning to buzz again with activity. For the owners of bars, restaurants and retail shops, it’s a huge reprieve to see customers returning to the area.
Reno’s Midtown district runs along a stretch of Virginia Street that was transformed by the construction of outlying malls and other routes to those malls. By the early ’80s, Virginia Street was no longer a highway through town, which sapped business along the street. It was a surface street, bypassed by most through traffic. Some longtime businesses remained, but, over the years, parts of the street became neglected. Since the mid-2000s, however, there have been efforts to rebrand the neighborhood and revitalize business there.
These days, Midtown is teeming with businesses. And, aside from a few, they’re relatively new. Many were established during the post-recession rebranding effort. Prior to the pandemic, these businesses were a year-and-a-half into a two-year construction project to revamp Virginia Street.
We were just trying to keep optimistic about the whole thing being a big improvement.”
The Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension project was aimed at better connecting the Midtown district to the University of Nevada, Reno, with increased bus traffic. It also added landscaping—including trees—and roundabouts, widened sidewalks to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and upgraded utility infrastructure in the area. The project, which was originally estimated to cost about $79 million, is being projected at closer to $115 million now.
Refining the art of running a business
Businesses in Midtown have had to get creative to survive, especially since March. Many have turned to curbside delivery of their goods and have focused on reaching their customers more through social media advertising.
Some owners are willing to say nothing more than they’re taking things day by day—some of which are better than others. And while most business owners you’d speak with would tell you they held on through the construction and shutdowns thanks in large part to the support of the local community, they’d also say they need that same support more now than ever as they navigate the rules and costs of a new normal that has left them with reduced hours, smaller staffs and the burden of supplying personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer for their employees and, sometimes, customers.
Nevada Fine Arts moved from its former location on Fourth Street right about the time that Midtown began being advertised as a district. It’s survived more than a decade in its current location, continuing to sell art supplies and do art framing work.
While the shutdown was hard on the business, co-owner Mark Hammon said he thinks the business has been fortunate.
“We shut down immediately when they asked businesses to shut down, but we contacted a lawyer that said when she read the demand or whatever that if we’re helping stay-at-home workers, we could stay open curbside,” he said. “And I should say that during that time, we built a webstore—which we never had.”
Nonetheless, business is not as good as it was pre-pandemic.
“We’re definitely down,” Hammon said. “We’re closed Sunday, and we’re opening later in the morning now. I think that loss of hours right now has definitely affected us in our income…We are down, but we’re not horribly down. We’ve gotten a lot of love from the community. Even when we were doing curbside, everybody was really thankful that we were open and doing that. When we were doing that, I’m guessing we were doing about a third of the amount of business we normally did, maybe even less.”
Hammon couldn’t say how his current sales numbers stack up against this same time last year, but the rules of operating under the new normal have kept them down.
“We have a classroom in the back, and we’ve not reopened that classroom,” he said. “We have a lot of teachers and groups that use the classroom who’ve kind of been asking us when [it will reopen]. We don’t really know when that’s going to be.”
One of the problems, Hammon said, is the “economics of the classroom,” noting that social distancing guidelines make it harder for teachers to get enough people signed up for their classes to make teaching worth their time financially.
The store also has an art gallery for shows in its downstairs level. It has remained closed since the start of the pandemic, but Hammon said there are plans to reopen it for a show in October.
“We’re not going to do a reception that we’d normally do, and we’re going to limit the number of people that go down there at any one time,” he said. “Our staff has wanted to do a spooky show for Halloween for several years, so we’re allowing them to do it. It’s called ‘Ghosts in the Gallery,’ and it’s an open call to artists.”
Openings are usually the most fun aspect of a gallery show, he said, and can draw a crowd of 50 to 100. Nonetheless, the staff is looking forward to the show.
Pulling through post-construction
Like Midtown’s other businesses, Nevada Fine Arts also had to deal with a loss of business while Virginia Street was under construction.
“We definitely saw a downturn during the construction,” Hammon said. “We had customers telling us they weren’t coming by as often. They realized we were in Midtown but were trying to avoid this area. So, there was a hit from that, too—but we were just trying to keep optimistic about the whole thing being a big improvement.”
He said early on he’d gone to some of the community meetings during which the Regional Transportation Commission and its construction partners were seeking input from Midtown business owners and residents.
“I went to some of the initial meetings, and they were voicing all of the things they really wanted to have done,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. Who’s going to tear their buildings down to make room for that?’ But they did a really good job of kind of hitting the majority of the needs. It’s been encouraging to see how it’s come out.”
Now, he’s looking to the future and wondering how the fortunes of other area businesses will affect his own.
“The biggest concern for Midtown now, I think, is that there are definitely businesses that are going under, that aren’t coming back or that have been so damaged it’s going to take them a long time to come back,” Hammon said. “I think that Midtown was striving to be an area where people would come down to congregate in groups, which is something we can’t do now. And I think that’s a big impediment to the direction Midtown was going.”
He said he believes what will “pull Midtown through” is the “shop local sentiment.”
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Hammon said. “This is really the critical time to do what we can to support these companies and see if we can pull through this.”
Speaking with This Is Reno was Hammon’s second interview of the morning. Just minutes before, he’d spoken with reporters from Channel 2 who were covering a collaboration between Nevada Fine Arts and the Sierra Arts Foundation to provide art kits to high school students.
And Nevada Fine Arts is not the only business that’s worked during the pandemic to support the community upon which it relies. At Midtown Eats, the owners—who purchased and began operating the restaurant only a few weeks before COVID-19 business shutdowns—spent several months serving free meals to area kids.
Christina Savage and her husband and kids moved to Reno on Jan. 31 of this year and took over ownership of Midtown Eats on Feb. 3.
“And then the pandemic hit on March 18,” she said. “Well, that was the first day of our shutdown anyway.”
The couple immediately set to work creating a free meals for kids program.
“We have five kids,” she said. “Two of them are in school. We know how hard it is to feed these children, especially for parents who work other jobs…or low-income families. So, our first thought was, ‘Let’s feed the kids.’”
Midtown Eats also operated its business curbside for a while—which Savage said “was not our thing.” Still, reflecting upon the period, she says that she doesn’t think their fledgling operation would have survived this period without support from the local community.
“I mean, we’re much better at it now,” she said. “We were not prepared for that, but we did our best. It was just my husband and I during the pandemic. But, yeah, I think the community just kind of banded together. People were bringing us stuff to keep the kids’ meals going. And we still have some customers that still order our takeout. I see their orders come through with their names on them, and I’m like ‘aww,’ because they’ve been ordering since the beginning of time it feels like for us.”
The Savages continued feeding area kids until June 6, often 75 to 100 of them per day. Sometimes families would order five kids’ meals at a time.
“There was no limit, and you didn’t have to bring your kids with you—of course,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic…so they could just stop by and grab it. We’d run it out to their cars.”
Midtown Eats also offered free meals to its out-of-work employees.
“We had to let everyone go, but at the same time, we told them, ‘You have a home here. Come eat. Come hang out,’” Savage said. “So they came in and helped us out, helped us get things cleaned up—and they would eat.”
The restaurant also partnered with the Junior League to provide 500 box lunches—250 for first responders and 250 for medical professionals. Additionally, it partnered with local nonprofit Lexie’s Gift to feed 40 foster families.
Now, it’s back in operation and fully staffed with a team—some old members, some new—for whom Savage says she’s grateful.
“Our weekends have been pretty steady,” Savage said. “We’re hoping our [business] during the week picks up. We’ve been working on our PR. We’re adding a few extra items right now. I think we’re focused more on changing things up for the season because all of our things are made with fresh ingredients—all of our drinks and all of our items from the kitchen, and those fresh ingredients turn seasonal.”
Multiple businesses, multiple challenges
Running a new restaurant is a challenge. So is operating four restaurants—one of which is in Midtown—as Ryan Goldhammer, co-owner of Noble Pie Parlor and Pignic Pub and Patio, has done for years now.
Noble Pie Parlor has three locations, while Pignic Pub and Patio has just one. Goldhammer said each has its own unique challenges right now. For instance, his original downtown location of Noble Pie is struggling without much nightlife open around it and because of its small interior space, which makes social distancing difficult. He said that the store continues to rely a great deal on food delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats.
With the Midtown location, he said, some revamping and reorganizing of the flow of traffic through the interior of the space is being done to ensure safety and social distancing. At the bar, he’s installed hanging plexiglass dividers to allow single patrons or pairs of customers to safely sit. And then there’s the patio space Goldhammer’s business shares with neighboring Piñon Bottle Co., a bar and bottle shop.
“The space that we’ve been able to use solely will start to be shared again,” he said, noting that this may affect the number of guests Noble Pie is able to cater to. “That kind of will depend on how our neighbors use their interior space too.”
Goldhammer said he and the owners of Piñon have considered putting up plastic screening around certain areas of the patio to allow it to stay warm enough for use this winter.
He said right now, Noble Pie Midtown is making about 70% to 80% of what it normally would at this time of year.
“There’s days where numbers are larger than normal,” Goldhammer said. “There are days that are smaller than normal.”
He said it’s yet to be seen if bars reopening in the area will give his business a late-night boost like he’d been accustomed to seeing.
“Places that used to be open until 1 or 2 a.m. are open until 10 or 11 or midnight,” he said. “They’re open with limited hours and limited staffing, and I wonder if that’s going to be their continued strategy, at least initially. With that said, it kind of didn’t really seem fitting for us to extend ours—because if the bars are going to be closed by 11 or 10, then we don’t really have a reason per se to be pushing it until 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. like we used to. So, we’ll be definitely kind of monitoring what everyone else’s strategies are in the neighborhood to help dictate what our strategy is.”
Goldhammer said he’ll also be watching to see if his alcohol sales, which were high while bars were closed, go back to pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, recently reopened bars—which were allowed to resume business at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 16—are waiting to see how much of their customer base will return.
Adversity breeds collaboration
For some bars, however, reopening happened before Sept. 16. At Rum Sugar Lime, co-owner Larry Devincenzi created an impromptu partnership with Pizzava, located two doors south of his business and connected by a breezeway in front of the old Under the Rose Brewery location, which closed shortly after Virginia Street construction commenced nearly two years ago. The arrangement allowed him to open almost two weeks before many other bars.
I don’t think bars are the dens of iniquity some have rushed to judge them as. We can and have been operating safely, perhaps more safely than other places.”
“I have to say, we’ve been very fortunate. We have this space open,” he said, gesturing to the open room between Pizzava and RSL where the Under the Rose Brewery used to sit. “So, it’s expanded our capacity. And people seem to drink more, honestly, when they sit.”
“It was always that we would have flow between our businesses,” Devincenzi added.
Prior to making the arrangement, RSL was open for some time for curbside pickup of to-go cocktails.
RSL—like many other Midtown businesses—received Paycheck Protection Program funds early on. Those funds, Devincenzi, said were “gone pretty quickly.”
“And, as you probably know, the rules of that game changed,” he said. “They had come out with one set of how it was going to roll out—and then they changed it, and then they changed it again. It wasn’t very hard to expend it, the way they wanted it expended.”
According to a piece published in the Journal of Accountancy on Sept. 23, “In the six months since the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was created, the only certainty about the program has been uncertainty.”
Devincenzi is correct that the rules surrounding how businesses spend the money and how they can apply for forgiveness of PPP loans have changed several times. According to the same Journal of Accountancy article, the “program stopped accepting new applications on Aug. 8 after funding more than 5.2 million loans for a total of $525 billion. Nearly two months later, small businesses that received PPP funding are relying heavily on accountants to guide them through the process of seeking forgiveness for the loans while keeping an eye on potential additional funding from the federal government.”
Questions that remain surrounding PPP loan forgiveness include whether or not businesses can take a tax deduction for the wages or rent they pay with the money. On April 30, the Internal Revenue Service ruled out tax deductions for wages and rent paid with forgivable PPP loans.
Another gray area concerning PPP loans is how much paperwork businesses will have to fill out at all, as members of Congress have proposed legislation that would streamline the process for businesses that received $150,000 or less—which represents the bulk of loans given.
During the initial period of business shutdowns when Devincenzi was only able to operate for curbside pickup of cocktails, the losses were significant.
“We were probably at about a 54% loss during that time,” he said.
Since then, he said, business at RSL has picked back up to an estimated 80% or 90% of usual.
We don’t have the big, gigantic days where people were crowded in here and dancing,” Devincenzi said. “Those days are gone, and that’s OK. A lot of people do want that sort of college crowd, crazy thing—but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we’re past that point with our business.”
Everyone’s in this together
Bars have been a hot topic of debate in Nevada since they were briefly allowed to reopen alongside other businesses in June but then ordered by the governor to close their doors again in July.
After being put on a list of counties that needed to report to the governor’s COVID-19 Task Force weekly until such a time that their disease transmission metrics met approved levels, Washoe County officials and bar owners worked together to create a coalition to reopen bars. Devincenzi had praise particularly for county officials for their role in getting bars reopened. It was a long road to do it safely, he said.
“To be honest with you, at first—you remember what it was like—I didn’t want to answer the door,” he said. “I wiped down all of my groceries. I was afraid of touching anything. We didn’t understand this thing. We’ve learned to live with it and kind of adapt now. I’m still afraid of it and don’t know where it is…but I think we have to adapt. And I don’t think bars are the dens of iniquity some have rushed to judge them as. We can and have been operating safely, perhaps more safely than other places.”
With his doors reopened, Devincenzi is hoping business arrives at a steady clip. Like owners of other spots in Midtown, he’s applied for grants and is awaiting news on them. And like other business owners, he believes the fate of Midtown now lies in the hands of the community.
“A lot of this is just in the hands of the public,” Devincenzi said. “We need their cooperation to not give us a hard time about wearing masks, to be cognizant of where they’re standing and…to relax a little and sit down—because they want to stand up all the time and do stuff and go see somebody at another table. And we don’t really want to police them, but we will.”
He also hopes officials will do their part in taking a more targeted approach and enforcing the rules under which bars have been allowed to reopen.
“The folks that break the rules shouldn’t operate, and the folks who don’t should stay in business until we get through this,” he said.