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Reno makes a run at white-water events

RENO -- The "Biggest Little City in the World" soon will have bragging rights as the only community west of Denver with a world-class white-water kayak course right downtown.

Construction is set to start Aug. 1. The $1.5 million facility will be at Wingfield Park, the island in the Truckee River where Reno stages its summer Artown festival and other special events.

The course, to include a 1,000-foot slalom section along one side of the island and 1,500 feet of hydraulic features such as "rodeo holes" and "play waves" on the other, is expected to attract lucrative national and international competitions. It also will be available for public use.

"The goal is to create opportunity for everyday usage as well as opportunity for competitors," said Jim Litchfield, a hydraulic engineer and a member of the steering committee that has been working four years to bring the project to fruition.

The Wingfield Park location, within walking distance of downtown casinos, is designed for maximum spectator advantage, said Chris Chrystal, spokeswoman for the Nevada Commission on Tourism. "One of good things about having white-water rafting and kayaking in downtown Reno is that it's fun to watch," she said.

Washoe County commissioners will vote June 24 on whether to finance the high-visibility project with a portion of $10 million in bond funds earmarked for Truckee River improvements. In the meantime, the city and two hotel-casinos -- Harrah's and Eldorado -- have put up $500,000 each as a bridge loan to secure the construction contract.

The course should be up and running by November, Chrystal said.

The white-water facility is part of an ambitious $10 million plan to create a 24-mile river recreation corridor between the communities of Verdi, on the eastern slope of the Sierra, and Vista, just outside Sparks. Funds would go to clear hazards, restore fish habitat and improve public access. The recreation plan is incorporated into a flood-management plan for which additional money has been earmarked.

"Floods are a tourism killer," Chrystal said, citing 1997 torrents that caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage and left the river clogged with hazardous debris.

In the face of growing competition from Indian casinos in California, support for the river recreation plan has been strong in both the public and private sectors, she added.

Finding ways to diversify an economy in which gambling has been king is a goal for local officials.

"For Reno to do this shows how Reno is changing," said Ferenc Szony, president of the Sands-Regency casino, vice president of the state tourism commission and an avid kayaker.

"Twenty years ago, Reno's tourism-based economy didn't need this as an element; gambling was enough," he said. "Now, if you gamble, you gamble. And if you don't, that's OK, too."

Outdoor recreation is the key to Reno's future, Szony and others whose businesses rely on tourism believe. "We have to be a getaway destination for the region, where people come and spend a night or two. ... Unfortunately, we have the stigma as a sleepy slot town that we have to get past."

In the past year, both the Reno-Tahoe area and the state of Nevada have launched aggressive marketing campaigns focused on recreational activity in the great outdoors. A new rash of advertisements dubs Reno-Tahoe "America's Adventure Place," while a statewide campaign pushes adventure travel with the slogan "Nevada: Get It On."

The impact of these efforts is so far "hard to quantify," said Bruce Bommarito, executive director of the state tourism commission. "But we've distributed more than 100,000 adventure guides, and that's significant."

The switch in emphasis from neon to nature has scored at least one major coup: the staging next month of ESPN's "Great Outdoor Games" in Reno. Bommarito and others hope the television exposure will help advance the area's new image.

Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, a former nightclub singer and enthusiastic backer of the state's outdoor marketing efforts, expects the river improvements to provide "a major shot in the arm for the economy."

"This river I've always considered an overlooked treasure of Reno," she said.

Reno's hotel-casinos have long sought to attract the skiers who fly in from other states to play on the slopes at Lake Tahoe. But white-water rafting and kayaking are activities usually associated with more remote locales, Szony noted.

The urban white-water park, along with improved access for rafts and canoes, will give the city the distinction of being "the only place in the world where you can pull out and get a latte or walk a block to your hotel room with a hot shower," he said.

Litchfield added that the downtown venue will be only one of about a dozen viable sites in the nation for kayaking championships. Other sites have been built primarily for Olympic competition, he said.

"This isn't the silver bullet, but it's another brick being laid in the foundation of diversification for Reno," he said.