Ask Reno business owners and tourism officials about the Reno River Festival and they all mention one thing: girls in bikinis. The restaurateurs and city leaders aren't necessarily excited about the girls themselves, but they are excited about what girls in bikinis invariably attract—a crowd.
The girls brought 32,000 of their friends to the Festival in May 2006 and hung out in downtown Reno for four days. They bled two area ATMs dry—withdrawing a collective $60,000 on day one, and $180,000 over four days. And they pumped somewhere between $3.8 and $5 million into the Reno economy. Tourism officials haven't crunched the 2007 festival spending numbers yet, but know that festival-goers spent $3.8 million in 2006, when 11,000 fewer people showed up.
And this was over just four spring days during the Festival. Over the course of the three-month season in Reno the park attracts 70-80,000 people to downtown. Not bad for a park that's only existed since 2004.
Local boaters, who are understandably proud of the whitewater park they conceived and worked 11 years to implement, say Reno can thank the Truckee River Whitewater Park not only for all the extra cash, but also for a tremendous revitalization in downtown Reno. Before the park was built, concrete walls sluiced the Truckee River through downtown Reno until it reached Wingfield Island Park, at which point the river split and spilled over two concrete dams. Businesses along the Truckee literally turned their back on the river, using the riverfront as their back alley. The only people who paid the river any mind were a few local paddlers, Reno's homeless and occasionally the police, who chased paddlers off the river from the '70s up to the early '90s, local boaters say.
But no more.
Today as many as 40 bars and restaurants—with fancy names like Imperial, Devine, and Washo—line the downtown streets of Reno. A 25-story condo building stands above the river, and a proposed project would build a residential tower 42 stories high. None of it was there five years ago before the park was built, says Knud Svendsen, vice president of sales and marketing for the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.
"The park has become the heart of our downtown," Svendsen says. "It's the center artery of what's gong on. Reno used to be this dusty old gaming town, now it's America's adventure town."
While Reno's park has redeveloped a city, two East Coast whitewater parks have helped spur original development. One company, Wisp Resort, believed so strongly in the appeal of a whitewater park that it donated land to build the $25 million multi-sport Adventure Sports Center International in Maryland—just as it did for a nearby golf course. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Crossland Development Company changed the name of a new housing project near the United States National Whitewater Center—which itself will hire over 200 people—to "Whitewater," hoping to capitalize on the park's close proximity and already popular branding. It's a trend whitewater proponents across the country hopes will continue, bringing both visibility and new converts to the sport.
Growing the Sport
The number of kayakers in Reno has at least tripled since the park opened, says Charles Albright, long-time Reno paddler and president of the Sierra Nevada whitewater club. "We went from having no kayak schools to having five in one year," he says. Parks in general are great for the sport, says industry luminary Risa Shimoda, if for no other reason than the visibility they give kayaking, which has historically been practiced in the backcountry, hidden from the general public. Parks in urban areas allow more exposure and may plant a seed for future paddlers. More importantly, perhaps, park visibility may plant a seed for a future paddler's mother, says Shimoda.
Many mothers see kayaking as an "extreme and probably dangerous" sport for their children, she says. Having a kayak park in an urban location allows parents to drive by everyday and see that the activity is safe and wholesome. That makes them more likely to encourage their kids' participation, which means growth for the paddling industry.
But the real boon for paddlesports retailers may not come from $1,000 boat sales or even boats at all. "It's not just about kayaking," says Jim Bell, owner of Sierra Adventures, an outdoor shop located right next to the Reno play park. "We rent more tubes than anything else in the summer." In fact, he says surfing is a lot easier without the kayak. Most park goers take the relatively easy road to surfdom with a tube or boogie board. Reno's entrepreneurs recognized the trend early and set up tube rental businesses along the river. So many wanted a piece of the pie that the city limited the number of permits it would grant to two, says Albright.
BY THE NUMBERS:
- Year first whitewater park was built in U.S.: 1974
- Number of parks today: 40+
- Cost of Golden park phase one: $2.8 million
- Years to recoup cost: 2
- Cost of USNWC: $38 million
- Years to recoup cost: 5-10
- Pounds of sandstone removed to build ASCI: 40 million
- Number of surfboards at ASCI park's opening day: 1, piloted by Jimmy Blakeney
Svendsen, whose job is to grow room nights and occupancy rates in Reno's hotels, likes that 25 percent of the festival's attendees come from out of town. Mark Lewis, Reno's redevelopment administrator, loves that the whitewater park "really helped bring greater-Reno residents back into the downtown."
Local or visitor, they all bring money, and they all seem to congregate at the park.
Though paddlers want to give the park all the credit, the Reno park coincided with a few other critical factors. One was a migration from Southern California and the San Francisco area to Reno. Another was a host of new companies and workers in town —including Barnes and Noble and Microsoft—brought either by the 300-plus days of sunshine each year, the close proximity to Lake Tahoe, or a new focus in the city on quality of life.
Despite many communities' goal of building a "world-class" feature, a park need not be great to attract paddlers—or money-spending spectators. The way to make a person fall in love with the sport is not to push them onto a shiny green wave with a four-foot pile of whitewater churning behind them. It's much better, says Shimoda, to build a Class II section, which is exciting but friendly for learning.
Look, she says, at Golden, Colorado.