Photo/Dennis Myers ZAMARIN (L) AND SCHMITT

“No, actually, it’s kind of like a big tailgate party, and everybody’s welcome,” said Lisa Jansen, describing something called the Redneck Rodeo Truck Show to the Sparks Tourism and Marketing Committee.

The sponsors of the Truck Show were appearing before the committee seeking from $1,500 to $10,000 to stage the event. The committee recommended that they receive $5,000.

The Tourism and Marketing Committee is one of those peculiar end results of Nevada’s casino power. Back in the late 1990s, downtown Reno casinos wanted an events center and didn’t want to pay for it. A room tax was imposed in a special downtown Reno tax district to fund construction of the center. As time passed, it became apparent that the room tax was too small, so the casinos decided to make the tax apply county-wide (they did it through elected officials, of course) instead of increasing the tax within their personal tax district. This meant that people in Washoe City, Sparks, Vya and Wadsworth would be paying for a downtown Reno events center.

Sparks in particular was terminally thrilled with this arrangement, so a deal was struck. Sparks city government would get $200,000 a year from the take. The city then set up the Tourism and Marketing Committee to dole the money out, some of it for special events.

On this day last week, the committee was deciding what to recommend on six applications—the Truck Show, the Sparks farmers’ market, Hot August Nights, a Western Heritage Festival, and two Sparks Nugget events. (Earlier this month it heard presentations on several other applications.) Representatives from each group made presentations at the meeting and the committee then voted amounts. The final decision is made by the city council, but the committee’s recommendations carry great weight.

The committee seemed to prefer to fund events that draw regionally instead of relying on locals. As a result, an event like Hot August Nights had an easy time of it, while the most locally-based of the applications—a Western Heritage Festival sponsored by the Sparks Museum and Cultural Center—was handled pretty roughly, though its presentation included the information, “Over 50 percent of our visitors are from out of area.” Of the six applications heard at last week’s meeting, five were presented by professional marketers. The sixth, the museum, was a non-profit represented by a retiree and a part time worker. That was the one that got the harshest scrutiny during debate over how much to grant the applicants. After the museum presenters departed, committee member David Zamarin said they were nice people, “but it’s really hard to justify that kind of money,” and committee chair Ron Schmitt said he found the presentation unfocused and that they “clearly haven’t outlined what they’re going to do.”

The committee also has a multi-year plan underway of reducing funding for long-time events that have had time to establish themselves and of shifting funding to newer events. The Redneck Rodeo Truck Show benefited from that policy—that, plus what Schmitt called the “phenomenally successful” television shows that reflect “southern styles.”

“They [the truck show] have the opportunity to do something with that event” on television, he said. Jansen said, “There’s a big strategic picture here that we’re looking at, you know, three to five years down the road, we think that we’re going to be really big, and it will partner with Nugget County Crossroads,” a three-day country music event.”

As for the older events, Schmitt said after the meeting, “We don’t want to lose Hot August Nights, but after 27 years, they should be supporting themselves.”

Photo/Dennis Myers Reno Rodeo officials Steve Schroeder (left) and Steve Duque and rodeo volunteer Lisa Jansen address the Sparks tourism and marketing grants committee. Mayor Geno Martini is in the background.

The committee recommended $75,000 for the Brand Leadership Team (a city-organized marketing group), $10,000 for Pumpkin Palooza, $20,000 for the U.S. Open of Watercross, $20,000 for a Water Ski Stunt Show (tentative), $5,000 for the Redneck Rodeo Truck Show, $13,000 for the Sparks farmers’ market plus $2,000 for a market coupon plan, $50,000 for two Nugget events (fireworks and a rib cookoff), $30,000 for Hot August Nights, and $5,000 for the Western Heritage Festival with a possibility of another $5,000 if the event is designated by a state agency as a 150th anniversary of statehood event.

Nugget issues

The meeting was a neat illustration of the coziness between Sparks city officials and the largest downtown business, the Nugget Hotel Casino. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to keep the lines straight. According to the agenda, the Nugget had three items—grants for its own July 4 fireworks and the rib cookoff at the end of August, plus it was partnering with the Reno Rodeo Association on the Redneck Rodeo Truck Show. However, that turned out to be an error, though it was easy to understand how the agenda mistake was made.

The issue came up because some city officials, notably City Councilmember Ron Schmitt, have been troubled about the informal way some applications are submitted for the city grants. Schmitt has wanted each application to have a clear applicant to which all the lines on an organizational chart lead—insurance, payroll, whatever—so that there is accountability. When he saw two sponsors listed for the truck show on the agenda, he raised the issue and Jansen said the Nugget was not involved.

It turned out that Jansen was there as a Nugget representative on fireworks and the rib cookoff, and she was there as a rodeo volunteer on the truck show. “Just because I’m involved, you shouldn’t assume it’s the Nugget.” she said. But it wasn’t that simple. For one thing, as Jansen described it, it was as a rodeo volunteer that she slid the truck show out from under the Grand Sierra Resort and delivered it to her employer, the Nugget: “So I’m on this committee that decided a few years ago we needed to have some kind of promotional event to kick off Reno Rodeo. So we planned this truck show. … So we had this event at GSR. And it was funny because I actually got the job at the Nugget the week before the event, so I started at the Nugget and then had to go Friday night over to GSR, which was very awkward. So I told them, you know, ’If you want me to plan this event, we really need to move it to the Nugget.’ … So last year was our first year at the Nugget.”

In addition, Schmitt pointed out, the Nugget was involved. “If you look on your application, you know, ’John Ascuaga’s Nugget business license’ is applying on this application. … I think we’d have one entity apply.” Jansen said that was a holdover from the previous year and the Nugget’s previous ownership and would be fixed.

Then there is the make-up of the city committee itself. It is chaired by Schmitt and Councilmember Ron Smith is also a member. The third member is David Zamarin—a Nugget executive. (Mayor Geno Martini was present as an observer.)

Zamarin has a lot of marketing experience, including at the Tachi Palace Casino in Kings County, California, and at Reno’s Peppermill. But his questions suggested he was unfamiliar with Sparks and confused by some of the local events. Several times things were explained to him. Moreover, the Nugget connection blurred lines. Zamarin at one point said, “I’m obviously trying to separate my own business interests from pure logic,” and Schmitt at another point noted that Zamarin would not vote on issues that directly affected the Nugget.

But Zamarin’s comments also made it plain that issues indirectly affecting the Nugget were fair game, as when he disparaged the farmers’ market because “I don’t see this as benefiting the Nugget that much.” It was uncertain whether he was then speaking as a Nugget representative or a committee member scrutinizing applications. During discussion of the Nugget items both Jansen and Zamarin made the case, though Zamarin stayed in his seat as a committee member. When the Nugget items were approved, Zamarin said, “That’s very fair, and I appreciate it.” When Jansen stood to shake hands with the committee members after her presentation, the two Nugget workplace colleagues shook, too.

The city councilmembers on the committee were solicitous of the Nugget’s needs and problems. They spoke of how the new Nugget ownership—which took over in December—needs time to “figure out what’s going on.”

It is solicitude the club probably needs. Virtually the first action taken by the new owners was one that seemed almost designed to alienate locals. It closed Trader Dick’s restaurant, a fixture of the community that is named for Nugget founder Dick Graves, and will replace it with a chain, Gilley’s (unrelated to the Urban Cowboy club, closed in 1989 and later demolished). It’s hard to imagine a single other change at the property more likely to grate on local sensibilities. The councilmembers at the grants meeting, more attuned to locals, spoke of giving the new ownership time while it gets its feet on the ground.

Jansen told the committee that the two Nugget special events—the fireworks and rib cookoff—will look much like they have in past years in order not to distress the public. “Because of the new ownership this year, we don’t want to make any big changes,” she said. “The community is very nervous about change.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...