Revitalizing History: Carson Valley’s Next Chapter
Is Gardnerville Hip? Finding the Spirit of Youth in Carson Valley
by Scott Neuffer
My hometown of Gardnerville is many things. Ruggedly scenic with mountains. Cleanly austere with pastures. Antique, historic, bucolic. A frontier town on the high plains. A garden spot in the vast Nevada desert.
What it may not be, though, what I don’t think we can call it, at least not yet, is hip.
For lack of a better phrase, Gardnerville lacks polish. This much was confirmed by Carson Valley Visitor Authority’s rebranding campaign a couple years back, when an outside consultant group conducted visitor and resident interviews in an attempt to identify tourist attractions.
The resulting tagline from these efforts, “Rugged, Relaxed, Reachable,” doesn’t exactly pop with hipster appeal. True, the catchphrase will attract a certain California demographic. “Come play in the rugged West,” it says. But it will likely read a little different for younger crowds. More like, “There’s not much to do in this place,” or, “This whole thing sounds lame.”
Of course, these variations on a tagline aren’t true. Gardnerville has lots to offer young people.
It might be wise to stop here and point out that I am 32 years old. While certainly not twenty-something young anymore, I cannot yet be classified as old. Rather, I believe I occupy that boring neutral space between youth and wisdom, between naiveté and maturity.
It might also be wise to explain that when I say “Gardnerville,” I am referring to the entire Carson Valley.
It’s just the way my fellow Douglas High grads and I refer to this place, even if we’re talking about Minden or Genoa. It will always be Gardnerville. And perhaps at the heart of this stubborn practice is an image of the downtown corridor we all know so well. The busy highway and old brick buildings. The grocery stores and fast-food joints. The county parks and neighborhoods.
What can we say about this downtown corridor? Let’s pretend we’re promoters of the hottest young band on the face of the planet and we’re looking for a venue in downtown Gardnerville. What we could say is that the older buildings do lend themselves to a certain aesthetic—shabby chic, we will say.
Gardnerville is definitely shabby chic.
This is the aesthetic of power-sprayed brick facades, peeling paint, cracked sidewalks, yet rich interiors, bars of antique wood, walls of Americana, hats, rifles, dollar bills, the implements of our Manifest Destiny, the black-and-white portraits of our forefathers, our foremothers, Basque, German, Native American, whatever.
What we could say about downtown Gardnerville is that it is unapologetically authentic. It bleeds its character into the streets.
As a pretend promoter, this is always more valuable than a place that tries too hard. And typically cheaper, too (No offense, Carmel-by-the-sea). What we could say of Gardnerville is that it’s a great place to unwind, to let go of pretension, to enjoy a savory meal and a Picon punch. Unique for its Basque amenities. Its Western-bent bars. Its antique shops and emerging art galleries. If we throw downtown Minden into the mix, all of the sudden we have larger venues for concerts and plays, from the CVIC Hall on Esmeralda, to the Carson Valley Arts Council’s Copeland Building, to Carson Valley Inn’s new outdoor amphitheater, TJ’s Corral.
All of the sudden nightlife becomes more expansive, perhaps more promising. Together, the twin towns become a unified destination. I’m convinced I could book a concert here for One Direction, if only their manager would call me.
“I personally would like to see downtown become more hip. You know, the place to be,” said Paula Lochridge, program manager of Main Street Gardnerville, a nonprofit group focused on downtown revitalization. “I like using the phrase, ‘Visit Main Street Gardnerville and see what you’ve been missing.’ I don’t think enough people take the time to see what is in their own backyard.”
We’ll get to what you’ve been missing in a minute, but first a little about Main Street Gardnerville.
Lochridge has been at the helm of this campaign for several years now. She and a veritable army of volunteers have been waging war against complacency and stagnation since the recession hit hard in 2008. The economy’s better now, by almost every measure, but still it’s a battle to revitalize the old town centers, to convince people that this place is special and worthy of patronage.
A few things you might have missed in past years:
— In the recent Taste of the Towns competition, I was fortunate enough to sample some chorizo from The Overland that rocked my conception of sausage. This revered establishment just sold to the Park family, and downtown stakeholders are anxious to see what becomes of it.
–During The J.T.’s annual Basque breakfast, I got see a cowboy-Indian gunfight staged in the crowded dining room while a visitor from the old country sat nearby, playing electric guitar and crooning Spanish ballads. It doesn’t get more authentic than this, I thought at the time. Pass the blood sausage, please.
–Buckaroos, Nevada Ugly, and The French have solidified into a well-known bar-row on the east side of the highway, sharing some nice momentum for nighttime shows and specials.
–Market Café has opened in the Historian Inn, offering artisan foods, condiments and beverages. The hotel’s updated lobby is a great place to read a book or play chess.
–Main Street Gardnerville has turned an abandoned building on Eddy Street into a sidewalk gallery. Revolving artwork and photography goes up on the boarded windows and adds color and artistry to a corner that needs it.
–Gadzooks has opened in a historic building beside the town offices, and is providing an essential communal hub for local artists, mirroring East Fork Gallery further down the street.
–Troy Phillips, a fellow Douglas grad, has lent some sophistication to downtown Gardnerville with Battle Born Wine, which continues to host tastings and classes for not just wine, but specialty beer and fine spirits.
–Moving north, the same Epicurean spirit is present in Café Girasole, Minden Meat and Deli, and Tahoe Ridge Winery, Bistro and Marketplace, among others.
–In the Minden Village, 88 Cups and Shelby’s Book Shoppe continue to strengthen their coffee-sipping-book-browsing niche.
–On Esmeralda Street, the Corner Bar has become a classic, cozy place to hang out after concerts in Minden Park, while across the street, the COD Casino has just opened its doors. Adjacent to both is the Farmers Bank Building, which is currently being remodeled as the new headquarters for Bently Enterprises. This company also plans to convert the historic flour mill and silos across the highway into a craft distillery.
–Ironwood 8 Cinema at the entrance to Minden has undergone a complete digital upgrade to compete with theaters in Carson and Reno. The complex appears to be packing seats for the big premieres and thus keeping moviegoers in the valley.
–And no rambling list would be complete without mentioning Carson Valley Inn’s impressive remodel a few years back. Upgrading its existing structures, and expanding its amenities, the hotel/casino is more happening than I can ever remember. Going to Katie’s on a Friday night is a different experience now than it was when I was growing up. The air is more anticipatory, rapt with diverse voices, clanging dishes, the bustle and thrill of a crowd….
And there it is; we’ve hit on something. The above list isn’t at all exhaustive, and I’m terribly sorry I couldn’t mention everyone involved in the revitalization of the valley. Rather, these enterprises are representative of a certain spirit, a certain change taking place.
These enterprises have been coalescing into events like the Thirsty Third Thursday Wine Walks in Gardnerville, outdoor concerts at CVI, theater productions in downtown Minden, cowboy poetry in Genoa, and a brand new community center across from the skate park. There’s political will to do these things. There’s also popular support. Of course, we all had Carson Valley Days growing up. There have always been activities here in which residents take great pride. But the scope and variety of activities appears to have widened. And in that widening, in that new eclecticism, in that enthusiasm for diversity in music, art and food, among other things, we find young people, or at least the spirit of youth.
What the Demographer Says
State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle is a man of data, not anecdote. He can’t make a hard case that more young people are flocking to Gardnerville. But there is some movement.
“There may be some migration for the 25- to 39-year-olds, but it is fairly small,” he said.
Let’s look at the numbers he pulled from current Census estimates. Keep in mind these estimates are for the entire county, not just Carson Valley.
Total population in Douglas County has ticked up from 46,997 in the 2010 Census to 47,118 in 2013. The 25-39 age group has increased from 6,510 to 6,637 in the same time period. While the school age population, 5-19, has declined over the years, the 20-24 demographic has surprisingly increased from 1,989 in 2010 to 2,259 in 2013. The 25-29 subgroup has gone from 2,144 to 2,212 over the same time period, and the 30-34 subgroup has ticked up from 2,098 to 2,296.
Before we get too excited about some of these figures, make no mistake, the county’s population as a whole is aging. According to the same Census estimates, the median age in Douglas County has crept up from 47.4 in 2010 to 49.6 in 2013.
What the Realtor Says
RE/MAX Realtor Jim Valentine is a man of data and anecdotes. What he says he’s been seeing in in the present market is indicative of a demographic shift, if a slight one.
“There are, indeed, more young people buying than we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “We have closed, or are in escrow with, quite a few that are either moving to the area, or staying here and buying.”
He gave the example of a young couple he recently closed with, both raised in the valley.
“He is a teacher, and she is a physical therapist. Douglas grads both, and they are buying their first home,” he said. “Several others. One had their first child while we were looking at homes. I would say there is definite movement that way. Values have increased, but are still affordable. Interest rates are still very low, and there are numerous loan programs that they can get in on with little or nothing down.”
While the Great Recession wrought devastating effects in the community, it did one important thing for young residents: it popped the real estate bubble that had become cost-prohibitive for so many young people looking to put their roots down.
Now, as values have rebounded in a more sustainable fashion, young people can still find affordable homes in neighborhoods like the Ranchos, Chichester, Arbor Gardens, Johnson Lane and other areas.
“Whatever the cause, it is fun for us to sell to so many first-time buyers,” Valentine said.
What the Superintendent Says
Douglas County Schools Superintendent Lisa Noonan is a woman of great intellect. What she says about school enrollment confirms that a younger demographic is holding steady and/or increasing ever so slightly.
“We’ve had declining enrollment for at least nine years straight, although the fall of 2013 (6,120 students) was almost a complete leveling off, a drop of just four students compared to the prior year,” she said. “Our projections show a modest bump this coming fall with perhaps 40 or more new students, but then the trend line begins to drop again as we move toward 2020.”
Well, dang that trend line. But a small bump, after years of declining enrollment, isn’t bad.
“We are very proud of the education we provide our community’s young people,” Noonan continued. “If any of your readers are families or businesses outside our area who might be considering a move to beautiful Douglas County, the school district staff would be very happy to answer any question they may have. We had great feedback with the addition of full-day kindergarten classes at all sites this past year, and the ground-breaking at Douglas High School for the new STEM center will give the whole community something exciting to observe during construction this coming year.”
Noonan had me at full-day kindergarten. A great sell to young families scoping the area. She encouraged prospective residents to call her office with questions, 782-5134, or check out the district’s website, http://dcsd.k12.nv.us/, specifically the link at the top right corner, “Considering our Schools?”
What the Chamber Says
Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bill Chernock is a man of many opinions. While Carson Valley might be a hard sell for active singles, it is a great place for young families.
“It’s universally accepted that we need younger residents for a balanced community, and that getting them is really important,” he said. “That means not just getting the twenty and thirty somethings to move here, but also keeping the ones that grow up here, or getting them to return after higher education or military service.”
Chernock argues that career opportunities, good schools and affordable housing are all critical to a younger demographic.
A broader base of employment needs to generate more than minimum-wage jobs, he said, pointing to workforce development efforts between the chamber, county officials, Western Nevada College and Northern Nevada Development Authority.
Here it would be wise to mention that Hardcastle also highlighted some recent job growth:
“There has been job creation in Douglas County since 2010 with gains of 239 in retail, 202 in health and educational services, and 133 in professional and business services,” he reported.
Nor should we underestimate the impact of major manufacturers setting up shop here, like Starbucks, GE Energy, AVK and North Sails. These large companies have helped establish a new class of young professionals, and have attracted talent from all parts of the world.
Chernock mentioned something else important–commuting to Reno and Carson City from the valley is becoming easier.
“The 580 connection getting completed to the base of Spooner Summit will make commuting to North Carson and even South Reno much more viable for those who want to live here,” he said.
Then of course there’s the world-class recreation. We could talk about escaping to the mountains every weekend. Hiking, climbing, skiing, cycling, gliding, fishing. Losing ourselves in the grandeur of the wilderness. But the scenery out our back doors is almost a redundant point to make.
“The growth of outdoor sports,” Chernock said, “and the increase in awareness of the valley as a great place to do them, increases our desirability for younger folks.”
What the Young Folk Say
You might assume the best way to find out what young people in Carson Valley really think would be to hang out at the skate park for a day. I thought of this. But I’m not cool enough to blend in. Also, I didn’t want to get beat up by middle-schoolers.
So, what I did instead, like so many young people, was turn to Facebook for feedback.
I got three responses. One had to be discounted because the respondent lived in Carson. The second was from a young entrepreneur who’s already been mentioned in this article, and the third from a young veteran living in the Ranchos.
–Troy Phillips is the 30-year-old owner of Battle Born Wine, which is housed in that old flat face of a building adjacent to the Sharkey’s parking lot. He himself has become a familiar face of downtown Gardnerville’s revitalization.
Phillips graduated from Douglas High as class president in 2002 and afterward left for the green pastures of higher education. In 2007, he moved back to the area and opened Battle Born Wine. He and his wife now own a home in Chichester.
“We stayed here to plant roots and start a family,” he said.
An unapologetic oenophile, he also wanted to make a small business of his passion. To bring a global, diverse sense of enterprise to his little hometown. Not an easy feat. Considering he’s up against the “box stores’ very pedestrian selection.” Considering the very real challenges small businesses face in a small town.
“We are lucky to have the very loyal customer base we do, but it’s unfortunate that it’s such a small percentage of the overall community,” he said. “It would be great to have more food and beverage options to go to, but it’s unfortunate that the community struggles to support small business.”
Phillips surmised that a list of restaurants in Carson Valley over the last 25 years would be enormous. Enterprises that have popped, fizzled, disappeared. Others that have been successful, still standing.
He noted one major issue in the business community, something that all towns have addressed in their respective development plans, is walkability–making the historic commercial districts friendlier to pedestrians and to younger people who prefer to walk, bike or skip their way around. To this effect, Genoa’s recent redevelopment project created a network of sidewalks, trails and public plazas. But other areas still have a ways to go.
“The micro-regionalism is also at times an issue,” Phillips said. “People need to get over their zip code and say ‘Carson Valley’ or ‘Douglas County.’”
Despite such challenges, Phillips lauds the benefits of living in Carson Valley:
“I love the community feel, the water, the proximity to skiing, fishing, the view, and an overall friendly/neighborly atmosphere,” he said. “My car doors are usually unlocked.”
–Samantha Cobb, 23, represents a younger wave of Douglas grads.
Cobb graduated from Douglas High in 2009. Straight out of high school, she joined the Air Force and served four years before sustaining a serious injury. Unfortunately, the injury in her leg developed into complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS, which she said is hard to treat.
“I moved back home after being medically retired,” she said. “I currently live in the Ranchos with my mom and sister.”
Despite the injury, Cobb works as a gymnastics coach at Silver State Gymnastics Academy in Carson City.
“I love living in Carson Valley,” she said. “After being stationed away and coming back, I realized this really is the most beautiful place to live. I would show people pictures from home, and they would think it was a postcard or something someone painted. I love being able to look outside in my own backyard and see this amazing view.”
She prefers the small town to the city.
“Living in a small town, in my opinion, is so much better than living in the city,” she said. “There’s a community that people can get involved with, and get to know each other.”
This realization, however, didn’t come immediately. After high school, Cobb said, she couldn’t wait to leave Gardnerville.
“But once I actually left and was living in different places, I couldn’t wait to come back,” she said.
This sentiment is shared by others. Adolescence anywhere can be tough, whether in Gardnerville or New York City. The spirit of youth is always restless to leave the nest. To defy what is known and stake out new territory. But when the wanderlust wears off, when the hot imperatives of youth finally cool, is Gardnerville a place to which the young want to return?
“Now I don’t think I would be happy living anywhere else,” Cobb said.
The Spirit of Youth
Physically, the population of Carson Valley is aging. But there is a definite youth contingent. Young professionals. Couples. Families. Maybe not Hollywood singles, but some cool kids nonetheless. A new generation of Gardnervillians trying to make good on the promises their parents made by moving them here however many years ago.
Our parents moved us here for the quality of life. For the mountains and the schools. The ranches and the river. Even the swimming pool. No joke. My father still talks about the pool as one reason we moved here when I was 10 years old. Any community willing to pay for a facility like the Carson Valley Swim Center, his reasoning went, is a community that cares about kids.
I’ll admit Gardnerville may never be a college town, where hipsters rule the local haunts, where every cup of coffee has a sophisticated name. But what Gardnerville has is the spirit of youth. A town not seduced by cheap fads and affectations, but rather unified in a willingness to try new things, to taste new things, to build great things–to risk it all on Main Street. Go for broke. All in. To succeed and to fail. And, at the end of the day, to let go and have fun. To shake off the dust and fill the old halls with music. It is this frontier spirit that keeps Gardnerville forever young. Shabby chic, yes. Tough as hell, too. But with infinite heart.
Scott Neuffer is a freelance writer who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Maria and son Andres. He recently published his first book, “Scars of the New Order,” which is available in local bookstores and on Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Besides reading and writing obsessively, he enjoys long walks on the beach, any beach, and poorly scripted romantic comedies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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