Janice—not her real name—spent part of last Saturday afternoon sitting on her front porch, two and a half blocks from the main street of Sparks, idly watching cars cruise for parking places and people walk past on their way to the Rib Cook-Off.
At one point, an SUV pulled into a parking place across the street from her house. The parking spot wasn’t really big enough, since the SUV hung out in front of a driveway. Janice watched as the driver, once inside the parking spot, backed up across the driveway and crashed into the truck behind him, and pulled forward into the parking spot to crash into the car in front of him.
When the owners of the car and truck arrived back, she told them what had happened. The car was undamaged, but the owner of the truck took his revenge on the SUV on the spot, kicking a big dent into its right rear.
It’s the kind of incident that happens all too often in downtown Sparks, which, unlike Reno, is a residential downtown.
Larry—also not his real name—says that when he lived in the Rail City’s downtown, it was a constant strain (a term often used by downtowners).
“I worked graveyard, so I tried to sleep in the evenings,” he said. “I would lie in my bed Thursday nights all summer, when it’s hard enough to sleep because of the heat, and I’d listen to the music from the Sparks Hometowne Farmer’s Market. The distance and the walls would filter some of it out, so it was just this heavy bass, throbbing and throbbing. The next day, I would find beer cups in the yard. Over the years I’ll bet I picked up thousands of cigarette butts in the grass. My garbage can had stuff crammed into it.”
The music ended at 9 p.m., just three hours before he was due at work. Larry finally moved out of the downtown to live in Reno.
“I don’t blame the vendors or the businesses,” he said. “I do blame the city for holding events it’s not equipped to have, particularly for not having enough parking.”
When he was Reno’s mayor, Jeff Griffin used to say that the key to the revitalization of that city’s downtown was getting people to move back to live in the downtown. Sparks already has people living downtown, but many of them are unhappy. The city manager said meetings on the special events where the residents can be heard will soon be held.
The city built one small parking garage at C and Tenth streets and another attached to a movie theatre, but they offer only 900 parking places, which means that people attending special events must park in nearby residential neighborhoods. Quiet areas see traffic jams as people drive around trolling for empty spots, then walking through the streets going to and from downtown events. A city shuttle of farmers’ market visitors to and from their cars at distant Reed High School did little to help—few knew it existed, and fewer used it.
Residents put out traffic cones, looper tubes (those orange standards used to guide traffic around construction), kitchen chairs, anything to try to keep their street parking clear. Drivers usually respect those barricades, but sometimes they don’t—and there have been nasty encounters as a result.
The farmers’ market was once known for drinking and violence, but intense city efforts helped things. Residents say it was not originally a problem because those attracted by a farmers’ market are not the kind of folks who make trouble. But as non-farm booths and vendors overwhelmed the event, making the farm produce harder to find than the beer, the nature of the event changed
After a violent incident at last year’s farmers’ market (see photo, facing page), Sparks Mayor Geno Martini expressed surprise in an interview with the News & Review that such things still happen. “I don’t think that’s as much of a problem at the market anymore,” he said. “We’ve done a lot to take care of it.”
August and September are particular strains for residents because the farmers’ market, Hot August Nights and the Rib Cook-Off are all held in the downtown.
“I get tired of it,” said one homeowner last month on a Thursday night, which is when the weekly farmers’ market is held. “It’s a strain. My wife comes home after work and whether there will be any place for her to park is anyone’s guess.”
Asked if he had gone to the city with his concerns, he said, “Oh, I did, years ago. I’ll tell you, they never seemed—they always seemed more oriented to the businesses than to us.” He said they did not show enthusiasm for halting liquor sales during special events or for limiting the number of non-farm vendors during farmers’ markets so that the ratio of farm to non-farm booths reverses.
There’s no question that the special events are a bonanza for downtown restaurants and bars. Tom Young at the Great Basin Brewing Co. said it accounts for 5 or 6 percent of his business—“a nice shot in the arm,” he called it.
But Young is sympathetic to the complaints of neighbors in the residential streets, perhaps in part because he shares some of their complaints. For instance, he said that the farmers’ market, with so few farm-related vendors, has changed to the point that it is hurting his dinner business.
“I just don’t think it’s got that appeal, anymore,” he said. “I don’t know what the city could do to bring it back. Yes, our dinner sales are way down on farmers’ market for that very reason, just because it’s a different crowd that used to come out, get some vegetables and have something to eat, something to drink, and then go home. … We’re still selling a lot of beer, but not food.”
Young, who tries to be what he calls “a team player” with the city on special events, said the crowds this year seem rowdier than they were in previous years, and he wonders if it’s an exuberance driven by a desire to leave the recession behind for an evening. He also says it’s probably not much fun for residents to have to clean up their yards and protect their parking.
Residents say people attending special events are quieter and less boisterous as they walk past on their way downtown than when they return to their cars at the end of the evenings.
City Manager Shaun Carey said that at the end of every summer, the city assesses special events with an eye to changes and that officials are particularly interested in getting the farmers’ market back to a more traditional produce-related event. “But that will take a community decision,” he said. A date for the start of that assessment process has not yet been set.