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Reno casinos are betting on a brighter future

Lightning flashed across a purple sky, but the couple from Alberta didn't look up.

Thunder rumbled; they didn't flinch. Gears on a monstrous mining rig turned above them; they paid no attention.

Bert and Sheila Brost knew that the thunder, the lightning, the gears and the purple sky were all fake. But the quarters they were putting into the video-poker machine were quite real.

"We'll take time to look around," Sheila Brost said, "as soon as I lose this last couple of bucks."

As she spoke, three queens and two nines lit up the video screen in front of her and 27 quarters clattered into the pan at her knees. But she was after bigger game (a royal flush would pay more than $1,000) so she pumped the quarters back in, three at a time.

Never mind that the Brosts weren't paying attention to the 120-foot-tall mining machine. Six bits by six bits, they were helping to pay for it.

And never mind that it wasn't real; more important was that it's new.

The red and green contraption, lifting buckets of silver ore under a domed sky that turns from day to night every two hours, is the signature feature of the $350-million Silver Legacy Resort Casino, which opened last summer.

And the Silver Legacy, in turn, is the centerpiece of a billion-dollar face lift of the self-proclaimed "Biggest Little City in the World."

After years of relative inactivity while glitzy new palaces in Las Vegas grabbed the headlines and tribal casinos around the country tapped into gaming revenue, Reno is on the move.

It's the biggest bet ever made in this gambling town: Projects completed or authorized in the past two years are themselves a wager that fresh attractions will keep the tourists coming.

Gleaming towers, expanded casinos and family-oriented arcades are some of the signs of renovation projects at the Peppermill, the Eldorado, Hampton Inn, Reno Hilton, Atlantis (formerly Clarion) and John Ascuaga's Nugget.

In addition, the $45-million National Bowling Stadium _ 80 lanes under one roof _ opened early last year and the Reno-Tahoe International Airport has upgraded runways, modernized the baggage-claim area and is about to build a three-story parking garage.

"You can see they're working hard to improve it," said Ed Harris of Spanaway, Wash., on a three-day Reno trip with his wife, Carol. "It's cleaner, and there's more going on."

The Harrises come to Reno up to three times a year if their Postal Service schedules allow it.

As gambling opportunities increase in other states, casino games alone aren't enough to draw tourists to Nevada. A recent Reno ad campaign promises "more ways to play," emphasizing outdoor activities in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area, such as skiing, fishing and golf.

But gambling remains Reno's main draw.

Statistics show that in the average visitor's 2.9-day stay, he or she parts with $266 a day, nearly two-thirds of which is lost in the casinos.

Sparking the recent construction and renovation was a public-private partnership in which a room-tax increase helped finance the bowling arena, which draws tournament players from all over the country. Hotel companies joined in with expansion plans to house the new visitors and to entice more.

No new feature stands out more than the Silver Legacy, the tallest hotel in Nevada. Its 38-story white tower looms over the dome housing the casino, both bathed in blazing light all night.

At street level, storefront facades set the property's turn-of-the-century theme, portraying entrances of mining-supply and cattle companies. Inside, the decor is dark wood and deep green marble, with touches of brass.

Antiques line the hotel lobby, and a glass case holds 43 gleaming silver pieces from the collection of a Virginia City mining baron, including cigar stands, champagne-bottle holders and a 36-inch candelabra.

The Silver Legacy is a joint project of two existing hotel/casinos: Circus Circus and the Eldorado. It sits between the two and is joined to them by mezzanine-level walkways, enabling a visitor to hit all three without going outside.

More than simple skybridges, the walkways have attractions of their own. Along the passageway to the Eldorado are a brew pub, retail shops, an espresso stand and a Roman fountain reminiscent of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

When you're not looking for a casino

Other "Vegas" touches are blooming around Reno. But unlike Las Vegas, Reno was a real city before it become a tourist haunt, and one can easily stroll from the casino zone into the town's colorful past.

Set in a broad valley watered by Lake Tahoe via the Truckee River and surrounded by mountains, Reno was one of the few naturally hospitable areas in Nevada.

The Donner party dallied too long here with disastrous results when they tried to cross the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47. Gold and silver prospectors forged through here a few years later. In 1868 the Central Pacific Railroad, pushing to complete its part of the transcontinental line, laid track parallel to the river. More recently I-80 followed a similar route.

After the mines gave out, easy divorce was the big lure until gambling was legalized in 1931. In 1947, the City Council decided to keep casinos to a strictly limited area to prevent tourism from engulfing the city, as was happening in young Las Vegas, but the council relented in the early 1970s, and high-rise casino hotels have been popping up ever since.

However, whereas the Vegas strip seems to run forever and requires a car to explore, Reno is still livably small. The Truckee River divides north from south; several blocks to the north, the downtown ends and the University of Nevada rises on a bluff above the city. After the din of the casinos, the 200-acre campus is a pleasant place to pass a little time, with good views of the surrounding mountains.

North of the campus quad are the Fleischmann Planetarium, with a domed theater that offers vertiginous film excursions into places such as the Grand Canyon, and the Nevada Historical Society, which offers a quick grounding in local history.

The society's small museum traces Nevada's development from prehistoric Indian settlement to early explorers, various mining booms and busts, to the current commercialization of prostitution and gambling. Old wagons, mining gear and gambling equipment are on display. In the society's research room, a trove of books, pictures and documents for scholars of the West, I picked up free maps of noteworthy buildings downtown.

It's a 20-minute stroll from the campus to the Virginia Street Bridge, built in 1905 near the original log structure that first connected the banks of the Truckee River. These days there's a slightly forlorn feeling here, of people passing but not stopping. Still, the rushing river, the tree-lined shore and the dowager buildings give this part of town, just a few blocks past the edge of the casino area, a sense of calm.

On the southeast corner of Virginia and Mill stands a gorgeous Art Deco post office designed by Frederic J. DeLongchamps, a noted local architect. Built in 1934, the Depression-era building's facade is terra cotta incised with geometric patterns; the interior is covered in dark rich marble and cast aluminum ornamentation.

Across the street is the Riverside Hotel, a 1927 brick building almost next door to the 1909 Washoe County Courthouse and hence home to Reno's divorce colony for years. The Riverside has been boarded up since its closing in 1987, although a Las Vegas casino owner recently announced that he wanted to buy and renovate the building.

Diagonally across the bridge is Reno's other elegant hotel, the Mapes, a 12-story Art Deco building that anchors the corner of First and Virgina streets, towering over the Truckee.

Just a few years ago, the city built a walkway with benches, a bandstand and a waterfall along the south side of the Truckee down to Wingfield Park, a lovely island in the middle of the stream where free concerts are held in the summer. The Truckee River Walk covers several acres on both banks of the Truckee, a profusion of trees, grass and migrating birds.

After walking up the small hill on Arlington Street, which bisects the island, I took the first left onto Court Street, where a number of stately homes from the turn of the century perch on what was once one of the city's most well-heeled avenues. No. 219 belonged to the original owner of the Riverside, who was also Republican Party chairman. The house is an expansive 1907 manse with Doric columns and a wraparound porch that overlooks a large yard sloping to the river.

Down Lake Street just across the Truckee is the National Automobile Museum, a 105,000-square-foot temple dedicated to the remaining 200 classic cars collected by the gambling impresario William Harrah. Most of the cars were sold by the Holiday Corp. when it acquired Harrah's, but what's left will overwhelm all but the most die-hard auto nuts, with everything from an 1890 Philion to an Elvis Cadillac to a '59 Edsel and a rare Mercedes-Benz.

Not everything in Reno is looking up. While major hotel projects proceed, a couple of smaller players have been left behind, at least for now.

Harolds Club, in the center of downtown, sits vacant and dark, small piles of trash visible through its padlocked doors. A sign outside says it will reopen as the Australian-themed "Harolds Club Down Under," but in fact, financing fell through and it's up for sale.

Some locals call Harolds "the missing tooth in Reno's smile," because the classic gambling hall anchors one end of the much-photographed Reno arch over Virginia Street.

A few blocks south, renovation plans also hit a financial snag at the Holiday Hotel-Casino on the Truckee River. It remains open but is worn.

Outside the Holiday Casino, Mary and Richard Nunes rested their drink glasses over a rail, waiting for the tour bus that would take them to the next destination on their six-casino weekend.

Reno is a site of romantic nostalgia for the central California couple in their mid-50s. Thirty-six years ago, to avoid the fuss and expense of a big wedding, they came here and tied the knot at Reno's downtown Catholic cathedral, St. Thomas Aquinas.

"Back then, the church sat off all by itself, nothing around it," Mary Nunes recalled. Now its twin white spires are hidden by the 16-story Comstock Hotel & Casino across the street.

But the cathedral remains a thriving part of the downtown core, though some might find it odd to see a church shoulder-to-shoulder with bars, gambling halls and discount liquor stores.

The Rev. Kevin Schindler-McGraw, a paraglider in his free time, says it's an interesting ministry. Many of his parishioners work in the casinos, and most of his visitors are drawn by them.

"There are going to be some problem gamblers, sure, but most people come down here for fun and relaxation, and it's an encouraging sign that they bring their spirituality along," he said.

Information from the New York Times and Seattle Times was used in this report.

If you go

Money may be no object after you hit a big jackpot in Reno. In the meantime, a little planning can help you tap into some bargains.

Plan several months in advance, if possible, to find the best rates and availability, both in rooms and air fares. Some hotels have a limited number of rooms for as low as $29 a night, but they disappear quickly. A little flexibility can help you take advantage of the best rates.

Consider going during the week. It will cost less and you'll have more elbow room in casinos that tend to be full every weekend.

A room at the Silver Legacy jumped from $39 on Wednesday and Thursday night to $79 on Friday and Saturday night. (Each of those rates has climbed since March. Reno rates tend to rise as warmer weather arrives.)

For information, contact the following:

The Nevada Historical Society Museum, 1650 N Virginia St., (702) 688-1190, is open Monday to Saturday. Admission $2, children free.

The Fleischmann Planetarium, (702) 784-4812, next door to the historical society, is open daily. Free admission for exhibits; a double-feature ticket for the planetarium show and film about the Grand Canyon is $6, children and seniors $4.

The W.M. Keck Minerals Museum, at the University of Nevada in the Mackay Mining School, is open weekdays. Free.

The National Automobile Museum, Mill and Lake Streets, (702) 333-9300, is open daily. Admission $7.50, seniors $6.50 and children 18 or younger $2.50.

For more information, call 800-FOR-RENO, a toll-free line of the Reno-Tahoe Convention and Visitors Authority, which offers information on room rates, activities, camping, golf courses, shows and special events.