It seemed like a simple idea—the city government in Sparks, which has been a member of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority for half a century, wanted to drop out and promote its own tourism.
However, it turns out that joining the RSCVA is like joining the Mafia—once you join, you can’t get out. Everyone from its own senator to the Reno Gazette-Journal landed on Sparks for suggesting such a move.
Sparks joined the agency when it was created in 1959 as the County Fair and Recreation Board, funded by a 5 percent room tax. The entire county’s population then (84,000) was about what the estimated Sparks population is now.
The majority of the Sparks City Council would like to get out of the RSCVA altogether, but its planned bill at the 2009 Nevada Legislature won’t go that far. The legislation will let the room tax dollars that now flow to the RSCVA continue flowing. But dollars from new hotels and motels will stay in Sparks for the city to use in promoting itself. The vote in favor of the measure was 3-2, with councilmembers Ron Schmitt, Mike Carrigan and Ron Smith in the majority and John Mayer and Phil Salerno voting against the proposal.
A 300-room hotel is planned at the Sparks Marina.
Salerno, who is Sparks representative on the governing board of the RSCVA, was quoted at one point saying that he wasn’t aware of any tensions between the city and the agency. He said the notion is a new one to him and that he would like it documented. If he said that, it seems to indicate a certain detachment because there is a long record of Sparks unhappiness with the RSCVA.
“I am amazed and incensed that Sparks has been, and continues to be, pushed out of the picture and treated like an unwanted stepchild.” That was Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong in 2000, in a letter to the advertising agency that handled marketing for RSCVA. The ad agency responded that including Sparks in area marketing would confuse tourists and that “several years ago the community as a whole decided to brand the area Reno-Lake Tahoe.”
Before that, Sparks Mayor Bruce Breslow pointed out that although Sparks contributed $4 million a year to the RSCVA, Sparks was never mentioned in the agency’s tourism literature. “We need to capture some of the $4 million in room tax to promote tourism in our city.”
More recently, what is called the “mystery shopper” ploy revealed a good deal about how Sparks is regarded at the RSCVA.
“We hired a consulting firm called Destination Development from Seattle, Wash.,” said Sparks City Councilmember Ron Schmitt. “We asked them to perform what’s called a community assessment, to come in, actually shop the city, act like they were tourists coming in and visiting our city, make the phone calls, actually come in, make reservations, drive around and make an assessment of the community as from a tourist’s point of view.”
When the company’s operatives called the RSCVA for information, the tourist agency couldn’t seem to place the town’s name—or worse. Six calls were made to RSCVA. In five of them, Sparks got a negative recommendation from RSCVA staffers.
RSCVA director Ellen Oppenheim attended the Sparks City Council on Aug. 25, when the city’s legislative plans were up for a vote. She offered assurances that her agency had received the city’s message and would respond with cooperation and specific plans. But the council majority held. Another round of assurances didn’t assure.
“You will get what you get right now,” Carrigan told Oppenheim, referring to the room taxes that fund the tourism agency. “We will not break off from the RSCVA.”
Assemblymember Bernie Anderson, a veteran state legislator from Sparks, understands where the Council is coming from. In fact, he says, doing something about RSCVA was one of the reasons he got into politics.
“The RSCVA has never done, in my opinion, what they were supposed to do in the very, very beginning,” Anderson says.
He said the fact that Sparks gets only one bill drafting request in a legislative session and chose to use it for the RSCVA proposal shows how deep is the city’s frustration.
“I think the RSCVA has been ignoring Sparks in terms of its advertising. I think that’s very, very clear.”
Anderson says there are some who consider the room tax as less than an actual public tax, that because it comes from the tourism sector it should be used solely to support tourism.
“Room tax dollars are public dollars … and the benefit has to be to the public,” he said.
At one time, room taxes were used for a broader range of purposes. Over time, more and more of the funds generated by room taxes have gone to support casino tourism. Anderson says, for instance, that fewer room tax dollars go to parks. In fact, that produced one of many disputes between Sparks and RSCVA. The tourism agency developed Wildcreek Golf Course but did not spend money to keep it maintained. And when it became run-down, Anderson said, RSCVA refused to sell it to Sparks.
But even Anderson believes the city should give the new director of RSCVA a chance.
“In dealing with the executive directors over the last 15 to 20 years, I’d have to say the current one is much, much easier to work with and is more aware of this issue and is trying to do something about it. I haven’t seen that yet, and I think she’s faced with a lot of other kinds of issues.”
A chronic grievance is the marketing of areas remote from Reno while not marketing Sparks. In 2000, Armstrong complained that RSCVA tourism brochures used photos of Sparks and Virginia City but never mentioned Sparks in the text. Virginia City was mentioned in the text.
Today, Anderson says, “They give money disproportionately up to Tahoe as compared to Sparks.”
Legislative role reversal
One of the peculiarities of the upcoming legislative battle is that Republicans are opposing letting the local government handle its own affairs, while Democrats are more sympathetic. Washoe County Sen. Maurice Washington, who represents much of Sparks, is opposed to letting the city do its own tourism promotion. So does Senate Republican floor leader William Raggio, though he took that stance before Sparks rolled back its demands to future lodging.
Other sectors heard from in the dispute include the Reno Gazette-Journal, the Sparks Nugget, and state casino lobbyists and the state teachers.
The RG-J ran two editorials, at the beginning and end of August. On Aug. 5, an editorial read, “With the critical casino industry hit hard by the stalled economy and questions being raised about the effectiveness of RSCVA’s [current] marketing campaign, this is no time to reopen the long-standing argument over how well Sparks is represented by the tourism agency.”
On Aug. 29, after the proposal to keep future room taxes was adopted, the newspaper returned to the subject: “They [Sparks City Council] might think that the city of Reno is getting more than their share of attention. That could be so. They should fix those inequities, if they exist, instead of taking on new and possible unbearable responsibilities.”
The Sparks Tribune has not editorialized on the issue.
The Sparks Nugget, which generates most of the room taxes in the city, opposes the legislation—but then, the casino has always seen itself as part of the Reno market. Its advertising used to read “East Reno.”