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Q&A with Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve

Sierra Living’s Matthew Bieker first interviewed Hillary Schieve in 2012, when he was a UNR journalism student and she was a city council member. He recently sat down with her again to see how her life and the city she loves have changed.

Story and Photograph by Matthew Bieker

So, the Mayor’s office… My sister and I were walking down the street the other day and she said, ‘Oh, my God, Hillary, you’re the mayor!’ and I was, like, ‘That’s right, I am.’ Sometimes I pinch myself.

Looking back on the last five years,…to see how things have exploded since then—it’s pretty incredible. I would say there has probably never been a more exciting time to live and work in Reno. With companies like Tesla, Switch, Amazon, Apple, all building and investing here—it’s really been a game-changer. I just also read that our gaming industry is now only 4 percent of our economy, which really shows how much we’ve diversified—anywhere from innovation to outdoor recreation. I mean, we have the tallest climbing wall in the world right here in Downtown Reno.

I’ve seen it! Have you done it?

No. (laughs) I can’t do it either, so I can’t point any fingers (laughs). But I think to watch the transformation has been pretty miraculous. You also have to remember we were the highest in foreclosures and unemployment next to Florida. We came from a place at the bottom, the very bottom.

But we have a lot of attractive attributes: The proximity to the Bay Area is incredibly helpful—certainly to Silicon Valley. Nevada is (also) 40 percent cheaper to do business in than California. So that allows companies to come, build here, and expand here—(particularly) startups that are trying to watch every penny. Another thing is our seismic safety for these technology companies.

At the very least, it seems like you’ve been busy. Just a little (laughs)…Reno is growing in leaps and bounds and, again (during) the recession, the city laid off 700 people. Our police department was at 1970 levels. So these are all things that we’ve got to play catch-up on so we can provide quality of life and safety.

I think everyone in Reno recognizes we still have things to work on, but what have you been most excited about? And, on the other hand, where do we have more work to do? I always think we have more work to do…And we still have our challenges like any city: Homelessness and affordable housing (are) what keep me up at night. It’s something the city has to be aggressive on…

But I’m incredibly proud we paid down our debt by $150 million…And if we look at economic development downtown—that’s really been my big focus—I’m really proud of the King’s Inn. That was vacant for 30 years and now it’s the 3rd Street Flats, vibrant millennial housing. They’re putting in a grocery store down there too—an organic market. So to see our blight initiative really working is exciting. And then right over here is the Renaissance Hotel, that’s a boutique hotel without gaming.

I read a great quote in the piece that Politico wrote about you, and you being ‘a registered non-partisan in a traditionally purple state’…In such a partisan landscape that the country finds itself in right now, do you find yourself mired in that? Or is your office unique in that respect? Mayors always sort of laugh—there’s no Democratic or Republican way to clean a street.

Because I’m a non-partisan, I tend to lean more toward business—obviously by owning a business myself and knowing what it’s like to create jobs. But I also am socially liberal. I’m a big supporter of the LGBTQ community—growing up as a figure skater, most of my friends were gay, and so I’ve seen a lot of what they have to struggle with. We have to be a community that is inclusive and accepting.

My colleagues—other mayors, because I’m very involved in the Conference of Mayors—might have a ‘D’ or ‘R’ behind their names, but you wouldn’t know it because we really deal with people issues and not party issues. That’s why things like the Affordable Care Act are important to us, because we get the phone calls every day, we see the panic in people’s faces—what having a repeal and replace bill might do to someone.

As one of ‘America’s 11 most interesting mayors,’ with a seemingly never-ending schedule of events to attend, how do you balance all of that personally? It’s like you created this big backyard for everyone to play in and you’re stuck in the house. I like to be very busy and active, and of course I have to find my own balance, because I love to say ‘yes’ to everything (here at work). But I have to be very respectful of the rest of the staff at city hall. If I could say ‘yes’ to everything I would, though, because so many people contribute to this community in such a unique way. And I think Reno is very special like that; we’re very community oriented and that’s what I love about the city.

In your limited downtime, then, are there any favorite spots around town you like to frequent? It’s called ‘home’ (laughs).

Out of the public eye for a bit? Yeah, and I would say, honestly, I’ve become probably a little more private because you do put yourself out there. I was just joking with a girlfriend the other day, ‘I never knew how fat, ugly or stupid I was until I got on Facebook.’ That’s a big message for me—especially when I speak to young people—to be really careful about social media because it can be pretty damaging.

But there are obviously a lot of exciting spots here in Reno. The Eddy (beer garden and community space) just opened up…, The Basement (collaborative marketplace) is really cool, and certainly Midtown is changing every day. Our arts and culture scene is totally off the hook—I think it’s sort of like this secret. And Burning Man, unfortunately, in the past, has had this huge stigma, so I really tried to change that by going and really seeing the culture out there—it was amazing! I mean, it was absolutely incredible.

What’s the yearly attendance? 100,000 (people)? Yeah, it’s somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000. It’s impressive. So one day—maybe it will be my last year in office because people might not like it—it would be great to do the State of the City [address] from there. Because of the arts and culture it brings in and the economic impact—it’s the busiest time in our airport and it brings in $70 million…It provides an incredible benefit to the community and we have to embrace it and let them know that they’re welcome. And it’s only going to expand and get better and better.

You recently announced your re-election bid (for 2018)—but what about after that? There was a big rumor I was going to run for lieutenant governor, and I really don’t see that in my future. I really love Reno, and we have a lot of initiatives on the table I want to see come to fruition.

So no national ambitions just yet? I think Washington is really difficult. Plus I’m a non-partisan, so it would be really difficult to advance in politics without declaring a party. What I’d like to see happen is a non-partisan movement where people really get behind it and embrace it, because I think people are really tired of the black and white. We all have to find that common ground. I always use the beer analogy (‘everyone likes the taste of beer’)—maybe I’ll change it to ice cream—but we all agree on something. We might not see eye-to-eye on this issue over here, but I can guarantee you we can see eye-to-eye on another issue.

Is that a Reno attitude specifically, do you think? Like, we have Burning Man in the same summer that we have the rodeo—I’ve always seen the ‘Wild West’ mentality coexist with the more progressive movements here in town. Right? I love that. I think too the university has been a big player. I try to spend a lot of time up there, engaging with the university and what we call ‘our millennials,’ because they’re the future, and we need to know what’s important for them. When I ran, I said, ‘I want feedback like no other’—and we’re really seeing that, certainly at the State of the City. My first year (as mayor), we did it at the university and we had 500 in attendance—usually that’s an event that gets, like, 50 people.

Then last year, we did it at the airport and got 700 people. I think that’s important—really engaging with people and really listening intently to what their needs are.

I would love to see (the State of the City) from Burning Man; that would be pretty cool. Wouldn’t that be fantastic! By the way, you’re the first to get that—people will probably say, ‘What? Is she crazy?’ [laughs]

We got the scoop? That’s awesome!

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