Not long ago, Reno was a home foreclosure capital and fading casino town. "There was only one place to go, and that was up," says Mayor Hillary Schieve. Unemployment peaked at almost 14 percent in 2011, when Governor Brian Sandoval signed a law aiming to diversify the state's economy, recognizing that gambling alone can't sustain a workforce.
The Reno area scored some early wins, such as a new, highly automated factory run by Ardagh that churns out 3.5 million cans of tomato paste and other food products a day. Then came the big deal in 2014, when Tesla Inc. chose the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center to build what will be the largest factory in the world and promised to create 6,500 permanent jobs.
"What Tesla did was it took our success and made it huge by reinforcing the message," says Mike Kazmierski, president of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. More companies have expanded or moved to the area since. Reno's unemployment rate is below 4 percent for the first time since 2006, and the fastest job growth in the region comes from manufacturing, employing almost 15,000 workers, up 15 percent in the past two years.
The telltale signs of gentrification in Reno are creeping in. Thousands throng to the weekly Food Truck Fridays near downtown, dudes sipping cold brew coffee at a cafe by the river, and a local bartender can't quite keep track of the number of craft breweries. The hipster scene helps young workers imagine moving to Reno, and those who can land these new kinds of factory jobs tend to have cash to spend once they arrive.
After the state's deal with Tesla was announced, UNR's engineering college booked a large auditorium for an information session with the electric-car maker. When 800 students showed up, "we had to open up another room in a hurry," says Indira Chatterjee, associate dean of engineering. At Tesla's request, the department created two academic minors, one in battery engineering and the other in manufacturing quality.
Construction on the Gigafactory began in 2014, and Tesla and Panasonic Corp. are staffing up in real numbers. In January, Panasonic told Nevada that it'll hire as many as 3,000 workers this year. In a state with an $8.25 minimum wage, the entry-level position at Panasonic starts at $14 an hour, and the next level up is $17. A technician starts at about $23 an hour, Panasonic tells applicants on its Facebook page. Nevadans can enroll at Truckee Meadows Community College in a free training program on the Fanuc robots used at the factory.
While many residents may say good riddance to the Reno of $5.99 prime rib casino dinners, the change has come quickly, and it can be tough for some to adapt. Some locals were upset that Reno has been spending money to install Burning Man art around the city. You can't create 20,000 light industrial workers overnight - the boom has driven up wages at employers such as the warehouses for online retailers.