Major Reno developer Chip Bowlby said Wednesday that the “world is our oyster right now in Reno,” comparing it to Austin, Texas “back in the day.” But he also warned the opportunity is “ours to lose, and it’s our City Council to screw it up as well.”
Bowlby’s comments came during an hour-long IndyForums discussion Wednesday hosted by The Nevada Independent at Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno and moderated by Editor Jon Ralston. The developer suggested that the municipal governments often gets in their own way when approving projects.
The panel, which focused on the challenges of regional growth, also included Blockchains CEO Jeffrey Berns and Brian Bonnenfant, project manager for UNR’s Center for Regional Studies. Throughout the panel discussion, the conversation returned often to the role of government in planning the region’s future.
When asked about government’s responsibility, Bowlby said: “The only thing I can say about Reno City Council, Sparks or Washoe County is get out of your way. Make things happen.”
Bowlby said that meant they should not become “Reno, California” to applause in the room, noting the Golden State’s many regulations, such as the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.
“Be proactive in what’s coming,” he said. “Be a solution. Don’t be a problem. And don’t stop growth. And I don’t mean grow quickly. I mean sustainable growth that’s smart growth.”
He specifically referenced litigation over Meridian 120 South, a project Bowlby’s company, Reno Land Inc., is developing. Last year, the council affirmed its planning commission’s technical denial of maps for 78 homes in the project after a judge’s temporary restraining order.
“Why would you do that,” he asked. “We need housing. We need growth. We need all this stuff.”
Where Bowlby was critical of local government, Berns said he sought to create a new one. The cryptocurrency millionaire, whose Blockchains purchased about 67,000 acres at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center in January, aims to create a desert utopia he said would usher in “the age of collaboration,” decentralize powerful institutions and empower individual voices.
On a chunk of land about the size of Reno, Berns has said the company would pilot blockchain technology, which uses a decentralized public ledger as a backbone for software applications. But Berns is interested in incorporating blockchains into the infrastructure of daily life. He told The New York Times in November that the site could become a community with houses and schools that incorporate blockchain. Although he conceded that reality would take time to build — and involved a level of risk — Nevada utility regulators have approved the company to serve as a telecommunications provider. It has partnered with other Nevada organizations on projects.
On Wednesday, Berns said the problem with government is that “we don’t believe that we all play by the same rules.” He said that there was not enough transparency in government.
“Our goal for Innovation Park and our smart city is to have a transparent government system, where everybody knows the rules,” Berns said. “Everybody agrees to those rules. Everybody sees those rules being enforced, and there isn’t this back-gaming of the system.”
No plans have been presented an official plan to Storey County, he said. But Blockchains has a unique opportunity, he said, because it was building a smart city from the ground up rather than adding technology, such as sensors, to existing infrastructure like roads and traffic lights.
“I would estimate that we will likely break ground on our vault next year late in the year,” Berns said. “We will probably break ground on the smart city somewhere closer to 2022.”
For keeping data safe, Berns said in November that it had planned to build a nuclear-bomb resistant bunker. Berns also said it was purchasing or buying space in other facilities.
With the development of the industrial center, Bonnenfant noted that the region is no longer contained in Washoe County but includes some of Northern Nevada’s surrounding areas, including towns such as Fernley. He said the obstacle now was to build out infrastructure.
“We need to invest in those communities to the East and South, so we can put housing there,” Bonnenfant said. “You’re talking water, sewer, police, fire, schools.”
But he added that “these are good problems to have.”
Income inequality and affordable housing, Bonnenfant said, remain issues for the region, as they do in many cities. He added that some governmental efforts, including housing bills sponsored by Sen. Julia Ratti and the Sage Street housing project, could address those issues.
Bonnenfant also said it was important for governments to take quality of life into consideration, emphasizing the importance of protecting open space, trails and other outdoor activities.
“You’ve got to keep this area with the good quality of life that we have now,” he said to applause.
Bowlby said he was optimistic about the designation of Opportunity Zones in several census tracts throughout the region. Created in 2017 as part of the federal tax bill, the zones allow homebuilders and investors to get incentives for building and developing businesses in low-income or rural areas. Although the tax break was pushed through as part of the Republican tax bill, it has received bipartisan support, including from progressives such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
When asked about the importance of regional planning, Bowlby said: “If we do not solve the housing problem for the companies like Blockchains, the companies that are here will not continue to grow and move out. The companies that are looking here will not come in here.”
“Like I said, the world is our oyster,” he added. “Why would we not want to engage with City Council, regional planning, with Washoe County?… It’s ours to lose. It is.”
Bowlby said he was working with Berns on projects that are “going to be epic,” but joked he could not disclose those projects without getting nondisclosure agreements from the audience.
“This has not started yet in Reno,” he said. “It has not started.”