It’s a hot Friday night when three guys walk into the Spice House, a small strip club on the edge of the glittering downtown of Reno, Nevada.
In the dimly lit room, flashing lights beckon the next dancer to take her turn on the pole. The three guys choose a table near the stage. A group of strippers approach, sliding seductively into their laps.
“What brings you guys out tonight?” one stripper asks.
“Oh, just looking to get out,” one of the guys answers. They just got off work from a local sporting goods store, he adds, and want to cheer up their buddy, who recently broke up with his girlfriend.
The Wild Orchid Gentlemen’s Club in Reno, Nevada, has become a battleground in the city’s drive to remake its economy by luring high-tech companies to town. Andy Barron, USA TODAY Network
But that story is a total lie. These aren’t local guys looking to party. They are undercover cops, sent in as part of a crackdown on Reno’s strip clubs that has more to do with local politics – and economic progress – than vice.
These officers are at the vanguard of the city’s efforts to kick the strip clubs out of downtown. Like other cities across America, Reno is trying to remake its economy by luring high-tech companies to town. Unlike other American cities, however, some believe Reno’s down-and-out image is getting in the way.
In partnership with the Reno Gazette Journal, USA TODAY has spent the past 18 months documenting this fight over Reno’s strip clubs as a city that has thrived on vice tries to reinvent itself as a big-tech mecca.
The battle for the future of Reno plays out over six episodes in Season 2 of USA TODAY’s critically acclaimed podcast The City. Episodes 1 and 2 are out today. New chapters will be released every Tuesday until Nov. 26. The series exposes the motivations of those involved in the fight, pulls back the curtains at the strip clubs and lays bare the true consequences of luring tech giants to town.
It’s a fight being waged by powerful people. But as with many gentrification battles, some ordinary workers and the city’s more vulnerable residents are suffering the most – like the strippers targeted in the undercover police sting, the low-income motel tenants whose homes are threatened by the strip club displacement, and the Tesla factory workers trying to make a go of it in the New Reno economy.
Dancers mingle with the customers of the Wild Orchid Gentlemen’s Club in Reno, Nevada, which has been under fire from the city. Andy Barron, Reno Gazette Journal
A Reno story
Reno, a city of 250,000 tucked into the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, has long been famous for vice – from quickie divorces in the early 1900s to legalized gambling in the 1930s and the spread of strip clubs in the 1990s.
When Las Vegas eclipsed Reno as America’s favorite party town, Reno’s fortunes began to fade, along with its image. To the uninitiated, Reno today is a tired casino town, the butt of jokes told by late-night comedians and schlocky TV shows.
The City podcast is back for Season 2
In Reno, Nevada, a fight over strip clubs means high stakes for business owners, government, and everyone in between.
Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
To city officials, becoming an offshoot of Silicon Valley is the answer.
“We are truly experiencing a Reno revival,” Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said last year during her re-election campaign. “We are truly rebranding this city, and companies like Tesla, Amazon and Apple are all building and investing right here.”
Tesla has built a giant battery factory on the outskirts of town. Apple’s massive data farm is growing. Google is building just east of Reno, and Amazon has long had a distribution center in the area.
The Tesla Gigafactory, seen in the distance, currently employs more than 7,000 people and is the centerpiece of the New Reno economy. Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
Reno’s wooing of these tech giants has jump-started the gentrification of its urban core. As the city’s power brokers try to ride the wave of this revival, they see Reno’s strip clubs as stubborn and unnecessary obstacles.
The power brokers in Reno
With developers circling and the Reno City Council looking to revitalize downtown, a loose coalition of power brokers and activists formed to pressure the council to take on the strip clubs.
The coalition includes people with a financial stake in seeing the city’s most prominent strip club, the Wild Orchid, kicked out of its quickly gentrifying neighborhood.
“They have a gold mine there,” said Par Tolles, a local developer who has invested heavily in the neighborhood surrounding the Wild Orchid. “We’ve all tried to buy it. We’ve all made offers. And they could redevelop that into a really, really interesting boutique hotel or apartment (building). It doesn’t have to be what it is.”
Others want it gone simply because they believe it contributes to Reno’s smutty reputation.
Mike Kazmierski, head of the region’s economic development agency, is a straight-laced former military commander from Colorado Springs, Colorado, who almost turned down the Reno job because of the city’s seedy image.
Now he’s on a mission to put an end to that image, one strip club at a time.
“They should not be defining us,” he said.
The strip club kingpin
The focus of their fight is Reno’s strip club kingpin: Kamy Keshmiri.
Keshmiri, born and raised in Reno by Iranian immigrant parents, built an empire in Reno’s vice-driven economy starting in the 1990s. He was a record-breaking discus thrower and hometown hero. At age 50, he still has 21-inch biceps – and a shock of black hair he wears in a manic mohawk.
Today, he and his family own three of the city’s four strip clubs.
Keshmiri sees the campaign against his clubs as an affront to his status as a revered athlete and successful local businessman. He has found himself fending off rumors that his clubs were dens of drugs and prostitution while deflecting what he considers lowball offers from developers trying to scoop up his property.
“It makes me angry,” he said. “I’m a Hall of Fame athlete. I went to school here. I’m a three-time NCAA champion. I’m No. 1 in the world in my sport. I’ve always been pro-Reno. I’ve grown up in this town. And for them to do this to me, it makes me bitter.”
Keshmiri isn’t about to let the city take his clubs. He plans to keep fighting back.
“I handle things in a different way,” he said. “I’ll just be patient. There’ll be a time when I get my revenge.”
In addition to strip clubs, Keshmiri owns the Ponderosa Hotel, a dilapidated motel attached to the Wild Orchid. He rents out rooms on a weekly and monthly basis to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
As the city closes in on his strip clubs, Keshmiri draws those tenants into the fight by threatening to double their rent if the city succeeds in closing his clubs.
That terrified people like Velma Shoals, a 64-year-old grandmother raising a teenager at the Ponderosa. She lives on a meager disability check each month and can barely afford the Ponderosa’s $750-a-month rent, not to mention the city’s $1,300 median.
Velma Shoals lives in the Ponderosa Hotel with her granddaughter. Shoals is one of thousands of motel residents in Reno who can’t afford the area’s skyrocketing housing prices. Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
“Thirteen hundred dollars?” Shoals said. “Who’s got that kind of money? Nobody.”
A housing crunch sparked by the big-tech rush has gripped the entire city, forcing Tesla workers to live in RVs on city streets, flooding Reno’s only homeless shelter and putting homeownership out of reach for many.
Amid this rapid evolution, the power brokers and the strip club owners have gone head to head to persuade Reno’s political elites to see things their way.
The Reno City Council engaged in the fight, taking up a number of measures that could ultimately oust the clubs from downtown – or make doing business there very difficult for the club owners.
To find out what happens, subscribe to The City for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You also can visit thecitypodcast.com, where you’ll find full episodes and additional material we dug up while reporting this story, including photos, court documents, videos and more. Follow the podcast on Twitter and Instagram @thecitypod and on Facebook.
Anjeanette Damon is the government watchdog reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @AnjeanetteDamon.
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