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Who’s feeling the heat with Burning Man cancelled two years in a row?

By Jeri Chadwell
Published: Last Updated on

Burning Man brings tens of thousands of people through Washoe County each year on their way to the Black Rock Desert to celebrate the week-long arts festival on the playa. 

It usually does, anyway. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, this will be the second year in a row that no (official) revelers depart for Black Rock City in late August and return following Labor Day weekend.

“Although here in the United States we may be feeling the weight lifting and the light at the end of the tunnel brightening, we are still in the pandemic, and the uncertainties that need to be resolved are impossible to resolve in the time we have,” read a late April announcement of the cancellation from the Burning Man organization.

Among those uncertainties were safety concerns expressed by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, whose land attendees pass through on their way to the playa. The Tribe welcomed the cancellation.

“For us it is a sigh of relief,” Janet Davis, chairwoman of the Tribe, told National Public Radio.

For some the cancellation still stings. There are those who will simply miss the event, and there are others who will miss the dollars Burners spend on their way into and out of town.

From burn to bust?

Burning Man is touted not only for creating an association between northern Nevada and the arts, but also as an economic boon for the region. Actual data concerning the economic effect of Burning Man on Washoe County is hard to come by, however, even for the years leading up to the pandemic.

This Is Reno checked in with the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA), the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Washoe County, the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority (RTAA) and the Nevada Department of Taxation in an effort to gain an understanding of the money that flows through the region along with the caravans of RVs bearing costumed revelers to the desert and back again, dusty and tired from a week of partying.

Ann Silver, CEO of Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce
Ann Silver, CEO of Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce

The RSCVA told us “there’s just no actionable, real data we can collect from a group like Burning Man.”

Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Ann Silver likewise had no data from member businesses, though she said she knows Burning Man is meaningful each year to many businesses’ bottom lines.

“It’s detrimental to so many businesses in this region that cater to Burning Man attendees, whether it’s hotels, whether it’s car washes, grocery stores, camping equipment, gas stations—they’re all impacted by the lack of people going to and coming from Burning Man,” she said. “It’s one of those events we’ve all come to count on… It’s very sad.”

Silver said she’s sympathetic to the Tribe’s trepidation over the event, though.

“I do understand… that the Tribe was very concerned about that many people travelling through its Tribal nation and possibly bringing COVID or its variants through there,” she said. “That’s understandable. It’s kind of ‘safety first’ when we’re looking through all of these activities… But I do think from an economic standpoint it will be a big hit, and I hope it’s not a harbinger of things to come in terms of big events.

“I know Reno Rodeo is planning on holding the rodeo… So we’re looking forward to Hot August Nights and the River Festival and Artown,” she added. You know there’s so many things people take for granted who live here, but it means so much to our hospitality and tourism industry.”

Is anyone doing the math?

Still seeking more concrete numbers, This Is Reno reached out to Washoe County staff, who referred us to the Nevada Department of Taxation. The Department in Taxation in turn referred us to monthly taxable sales statistics for Washoe County. These proved interesting, but not because they provided any concrete evidence of Burning Man’s effect on the region’s economy. 

In fact, they didn’t.

Comparing the summer and early autumn months of July, August, September and October over the last decade shows that sales and use taxes in Washoe County do tend to be highest during August and September, but there have been years in the last decade when these months have seen lower sales taxes than July or October. There have also been years where the amount of sales taxes raised during those months has fluctuated very little.

Reno-Tahoe Airport’s Brian Kulpin discusses the economic impact the airport has on northern Nevada in August 2018. Image: Ty O’Neil

In the end, the only organization able to provide Burning-Man-related bottom line numbers was the airport authority. Further evidence that Burning Man may not be as significant as an economic driver for Washoe County as one might think can be found in how the RTAA is faring through the pandemic without the air travel traffic the festival brings.

Brian Kulpin, chief public affairs officer for the RTAA, said it’s estimated Burning Man brings an average of $11 million in plane ticket and food and beverage sales to the airport, which sees an average of more than 20,000 attendees fly in and out.

Kulpin said the airport receives Burning Man travelers from an average of 34 different countries, adding that the airport will be affected by the cancellation “in the fact that it’s a group that we enjoy bringing through the airport,” even if cleaning up the playa dust when they depart is quite the chore. 

The airport authority in recent years has also set up a campaign to let Burners know they can bring bikes directly to the airport to be refurbished and placed back into the community through a partnership with the Kiwanis Club.

Nonetheless, Labor Day weekend traffic at the airport last year was a good one for the airport. More than 6,000 passengers a day came through even with the pandemic and without the official Burn. Hundreds went to the Black Rock Desert anyway, despite the lack of an official event, a gathering that harkened on early Burning Man gatherings at the Black Rock.

Kulpin said it’s too soon to say how much traffic the airport will get during Labor Day weekend this year, but there is reason to be optimistic. The Reno Tahoe International Airport, he said, has been recovering from the pandemic at a faster pace than many other major airports, at least in part thanks to the fact that it’s serving more and more destinations. By Labor Day, it will be serving between 24 and 25 destinations—a record number for the airport. Current air travel figures are looking good.

“This past Sunday, we had 6,000 departing customers,” he said.

‘Burner’ arts groups focus on community projects

Even some organizations more closely affiliated with Burning Man are attempting to see a silver lining in the cancellation. Local arts and makers’ space the Generator, where many large Burning Man art projects are often built, has been going through its own transition—moving from its longtime location in Sparks to a temporary one in Reno and now a new, permanent home on Oddie Boulevard.  

The LOVE sculpture from Burning Man, created by Artist/Designer, Laura Kimpton and Builder/Artist, Jeff Schomberg, was placed in front of Renown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Bob Conrad

“So, we were thinking it could be a really good revenue source for us to rent out space for the Burn for the next, like, three months while we’re in two different spaces and we’re going to have a 60,000-square-foot warehouse,” said Jessi Janusee, Generator communications director. “Instead, now we’re not really sure what we’re going to do. We’re talking about doing a couple of events, but it definitely won’t be the same.”

Janusee said the Generator’s staff has in recent years sought ways through which the organization might financially benefit more from Burning Man. That could still be an objective in future years, but, for now, their focus will turn toward efforts to create mentoring opportunities for budding artists and greater community engagement.

“I think it’s just enabling us to move in a different direction,” she said. “We’re definitely going to have an art park at our new space, and we want to spend a lot more time making art that’s going to stay here and have a place to go permanently within our own community than worrying so much about bringing art out to the playa.”

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