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Accusations of ‘back door deals’ levied in proposed Community Assistance Center purchase

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Accusations of ‘back door deals’ levied in proposed Community Assistance Center purchase

Following hours of presentations, discussions and heated arguments about the future of the city’s dilapidated Community Assistance Center (CAC), the Reno City Council on Wednesday agreed to start a request for proposal (RFP) process after a local developer submitted a letter of interest to turn the property into workforce housing. 

The CAC, located at 315 and 335 Record St., was built in 2008 for $20 million and contained a women’s shelter, family shelter and triage center. In 2021, Washoe County opened the Nevada Cares Campus which left the CAC underused, and in February 2023, the last tenants of the center vacated the facility. It has been closed since. 

According to the city’s Revitalization Manager, Bryan McArdle, the CAC has been broken into 13 times and is in disrepair. Copper and electrical wires have been stolen, both elevators have been destroyed, and leaks have led to mold. 

Neglect of the Community Assistance Center, the city's former homeless shelter, has made it uninhabitable.
Neglect of the Community Assistance Center, the city’s former homeless shelter, has made it uninhabitable.

McArdle said the cost to bring the building back “online” would be $2.75 million with a price of $1.97 million for a five-year maintenance and operations cost. In September 2023, it was determined that the city manager’s office never submitted any insurance claims on the property despite its condition and several break-ins. 

Bash Capital proposed purchasing the property to create workforce housing—which, in July 2023, they suggested would be tailored to the needs of Tesla employees. The proposal presented to the council Wednesday made no mention of who might be the building’s potential residents. 

It offered two options—to buy the property for $1.5 million, with no development agreement, or for $1 with a development agreement to create workforce housing under 80% of the area median income (AMI). The median income for Reno as of the 2022-2023 fiscal year was $65,400 for one individual; 80% is $52,300. McArdle said the percentage targets individuals making between $55,000 and $120,000 annually. 

The city initially put in $3 million of community development block grant (CDBG) money, which means if the city sells the building, it is liable to return the CDBG money upon selling the property. Staff discovered they only needed to return a portion of the new appraised cost–-$4 million. 

“How hilarious it is to me to make comments about political theater for three minutes, just the irony of that.” 

If the property is sold for $1 and includes 51% of units at 80% AMI or lower, the city would not be forced to pay back any money to the CDBG fund. If the property is sold for $1.5 million with market-rate housing, it must return $600,000 to the fund. 

Some developers and business owners spoke in favor of selling the property to Bash, with many stating that the property has remained vacant for so long because no one else wants it or has the means to rehabilitate the buildings. Those in favor said the proposal from Bash is a realistic way to reenergize the area that has become a hot spot for vagrancy and crime. 

Several public commenters argued the city should provide the services the CAC once provided–either by putting funds into rehabilitating the building or selling it to a nonprofit. 

The developers said, however, that whether a shelter should belong at CAC is moot because, after the city approved the new Ballpark Apartments development located 470 feet from the property, a shelter cannot operate at the location anyway. Under Reno land use code 18.03.303, homeless service providers cannot be located closer than 600 feet from a residential property. 

The proposal

Troy Keeney of Bash said the company’s intention is to help the city and revitalize the downtown area. He said they began to take an interest in the property in September 2023 and decided to submit an offer in December 2023. Keeney said there had been no negotiations with anyone at the city and their proposal was unsolicited. 

Emails obtained in a public records request show that Keeney’s project partner Brianna Bullentini, as part of the Bash Capital team, had been working on ideas for the property since at least July of last year. The project proposal is for approximately 100 units between 370 and 1,050 square feet each and 118 parking spots, bike storage and a pick-up station for Tesla employees, among other amenities. 

“We’re looking to rent to people who make $20 – $25 per hour,” Keeney said. “This is workforce housing. If approved, the company hope to have the certificate of occupancy by December 2025.

Conflicts

Some commenters and one council member accused the council of brokering a “back door deal” by not opening up a request for proposals to the community at large or being transparent about council members meeting with Bash representatives. 

“We don’t want anyone saying this was a back door deal; that’s why I wanted this heard today,” Mayor Hillary Schieve responded.

Council member Jenny Brekhus said she was never told a proposal had come through nor that the city manager’s office was “in negotiations” with Bash.

“That was asked if I recall, and it wasn’t even disclosed,” Brekhus said. “I’m so stunned that our process is so broken.”

Brekhus had asked about developer interest in the properties at a September 2023 council meeting following staff disclosure of the CAC’s extensive damage. At the time, City Manager Doug Thornley had said there were no discussions. Days after that meeting, Brekhus emailed staff and council members to request a discussion on the future of the CAC to be added to a council agenda. That didn’t happen until this week, following Bash’s proposal.

Brekhus said she believed there were serial meetings happening with Bash and that bringing the project forward was entering the council into “murky waters.” 


‘Please keep to yourself…’

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Bash Capital’s email to city staff on July 26, 2023. City Manager Doug Thornley was sent this email the next day. “Below is an update on the CAC site. They are moving as fast as they can on their due diligence to put a deal together. Kaufman is interested and was on a call with us last week. But I believe Kaufman is waiting on Brianna and crew to put the package together,” wrote the city’s Bryan McArdle.

“The buck stops with us,” Schieve said. “I don’t care what [staff does]. It stops with us. It pains a perception that everyone’s doing deals behind closed doors; it’s up to this council. No one is bringing anything. I just feel like it undermines why we’re here today by using that kind of rhetoric.” 

City of Reno's Ashley Turney.
City of Reno’s Ashley Turney.

Assistant City Manager Ashley Turney said there are no negotiations or deals, and the agenda item was only a letter of interest. She said unsolicited bids had come forward to the council at least three times previously on other properties. 

“Staff does not negotiate deals on behalf of council until given direction in public to do so,” Turney said. 

Council member Devon Reese accused Brekhus of lying and spreading misinformation, saying that Brekhus had sued the city and engineered “clickbait for pseudo-journalists.” His comments went on to such an extent that he had to be corralled by city attorneys, who asked him to stay on the agenda topic. 

“I will use the time that I have to speak about the issues as I see them,” Reese shot back. “You seem to get involved in comments when you want to and not when they’re needed. I’m a lawyer, just like you, and I think I know what’s on the topic.” 

Reese refused to move on for some time despite legal counsel’s request, arguing that he should be allowed to continue his comments because Brekhus was spreading misinformation about the agenda item. At one point during the meeting, he accused public commenters of creating “political theater” over the CAC issue.

Meghan Ebert, Reno City Council member. Image: City of Reno.
Meghan Ebert, Reno City Council member. Image: City of Reno.

“This is wild,” Council member Meghan Ebert commented. “How hilarious it is to me to make comments about political theater for three minutes, just the irony of that.” 

Ebert said she met with Bash and was concerned when the company’s representatives told her they had spoken to former Council member Oscar Delgado about the potential development before speaking with her.

“It raises a lot of concerns to me about the process the city is following with regards to these developments … I know Council member Martinez still consults with Delgado, but [Delgado’s] no longer on the council,” Ebert said. “I just want to call out that I’m concerned about this.” 

“I guess I’m identifying challenges that we need to know, you know, because I think there’s a lot of due diligence that we have–again, I don’t think people realize how long it takes to get a project off the ground, how difficult it is financially.”

Ebert also said she thought any discussion of the CAC should have been brought to the council when Brekhus had asked for an agenda item last year. She asked why no one acknowledged the request. 

“This facility did not fall into disrepair overnight,” Ebert continued. “It wasn’t bombed or got hit by an earthquake. Why did we overlook this facility to this point? We’re not being good stewards of the properties we have.” 

Council member Naomi Duerr said she felt “deeply offended” that the public accuses the council of backdoor deals each time an item comes forward after a property receives an unsolicited proposal. She said that when unsolicited proposals come into the city, they should be placed on the council’s agenda immediately to ward off any public suspicions. 

Duerr said she agreed with Ebert’s sentiments and that “demolition by neglect is a real thing.” Council member Kathleen Taylor asked why the council was discussing the proposal without hearing a presentation first. 

Reno City Council member Kathleen Taylor.
Reno City Council member Kathleen Taylor.

“We’re letting public comment dictate how we operate a meeting,” Taylor said. “Let’s hear what we’re supposed to be talking about.” 

Brekhus said she didn’t want to hear the pitch and that they should first discuss what the council desires to do with the CAC.

Schieve said she wanted to be able to defend the developer who was becoming “maligned” by public comments and that she’d leave it up to the developer as to whether they wanted to continue with the presentation. 

“I never saw the proposal until today, you know, so I think there’s a lot more that we need to get down the road,” Schieve said. “I guess I’m identifying challenges that we need to know, you know, because I think there’s a lot of due diligence that we have–again, I don’t think people realize how long it takes to get a project off the ground, how difficult it is financially.

“I mean, everything that goes into a project is tough, so it’s not like this is just one and done,” she added. “This is gonna have to come through a process of identifying what those needs are.”

Brianna Bullentini, on behalf of Bash, was visibly frustrated and said they wished to proceed. “We’ve done everything legally the way we’re supposed to,” she said.

RFP approved

Following the presentation, the council discussed the proposal and the CAC property at length. Duerr said that whenever an unsolicited letter of interest comes in regarding any city-owned property, she always asks to open an RFP. She also said she was surprised that the building was built only in 2008 and has fallen into such disrepair. 

Ebert said she did not believe that the response received by the community was necessarily against the developer but, instead, was out of a concern that the city no longer has a women’s or family shelter. 

“A lot of people have been expecting the city of Reno to rehabilitate that facility, and there’s been a request from a city council member to discuss it, which didn’t happen, so, unfortunately, you guys just got the brunt of it today,” Ebert said. “You guys didn’t do anything wrong; you’re not the bad guy. There’s a lot of conflicting interest.” 

Advocates for those living without shelter said their concern was less about Bash’s proposal and more about the city’s refusal to meet with them or hold a public meeting to discuss options for the property. A women’s and family shelter was just one suggestion they had asked to discuss. Others suggested using it as a warming center in the winter.

Schieve pointed out that Our Place, a women’s and family’s emergency shelter, does operate; however, it is located in Sparks, not Reno. 

Bash argued against the city opening the property up for an RFP, stating that, in four years, they are the only company to issue an offer and that opening up to an RFP will only slow down the process. Following discussions, the council voted to direct staff to prepare the property for sale, including initiating a new appraisal and beginning an RFP process to potentially sell the property. 

In other items

Parking fees and fines to be updated 

The city will be holding a review of parking infractions. While the city of Sparks has updated its fines and fees in recent years, Reno has fallen behind. Parking fines range from $25 to $75, whereas the fees in Sparks range from $89 to $295. 

The city receives between 700 and 900 parking complaints every month. Because of the low fees, staff believed that the fines were no longer a deterrent to drivers. Council members directed staff to review and update the code. 

Neil Road Recreation Center expansion 

The council approved a consultant agreement with Tectonics Design Group to design the Neil Road Recreation Center expansion project. 

The remodel will expand the 5,120-square-foot facility by 3,500 square feet. The property is leased to the Community Health Alliance. $5 million has been allocated from American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project. 

Michelle Gutlove's art rendering for the Moana Springs Pool. City of Reno public record.
Michelle Gutlove’s art rendering for the Moana Springs Community Aquatics & Fitness Center. City of Reno public record.

Artist approved for Moana Springs pool 

An artist was selected for the Moana Springs Community Aquatics and Fitness Center to create public art as part of the project. Michele Gutlove was recommended by the Reno Arts and Culture Commission and the Public Art Committee to provide art on the exterior and interior for an amount not exceeding $525,000. 

Gutlove’s proposed art includes an exterior mountainscape constructed of glass and LED lights, with similar glass works installed inside. The full proposal and images of the work can be viewed here.  The Moana Springs facility is slated to open in late summer of 2024. 

Locomotion Plaza receives $1.63 million for improvements 

The council approved Locomotion Plaza improvements, including electrical and lighting installations, shade umbrellas, seating, and site improvements such as adding food truck pads and custodial services. In total, $1.63 million was allocated from state and local fiscal recovery funding. 

Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose is a proud Native Nevadan whose work in journalism and publishing can be found throughout the Sierra region. She received degrees in English Literature and Anthropology from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She is an avid supporter of high desert agriculture and rescue dogs.

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