MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Reno, Nevada is trying to change its image. It wants to move beyond its reputation as a wannabe Las Vegas or the home of quickie divorces. And people there say the city has turned a corner. As Will Stone of Reno Public Radio reports, they want outsiders to see that too.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: For a while, Reno has been a punchline - from the Comedy Central show "Reno 911" to the Muppets taking jabs at it to a "Saturday Night Live" skit calling it the unhappiest city in America. So, you wouldn't expect to find something as cool as a white water park right in the middle of downtown.
CHARLIE ALBRIGHT: A lot of people learn how to paddle here. They say I'm older than dirt.
STONE: Charles Albright is Reno's so-called godfather of kayaking. He's just exited a small rapid and is floating alongside the banks of the Truckee River, which runs through Reno. Nearby is an outdoor theater and restaurants. This section of the river has rapids for whitewater enthusiasts and spots for swimming. Once on the shore, Albright explains it's become a major attraction in recent years, but it wasn't always like this.
ALBRIGHT: It had concrete walls all through it pretty much, and it was really hard to access and do anything fun in. And the city, for many years, the police wouldn't even let you get in the river.
STONE: So he and his fellow paddlers convinced the city and several casinos to pitch in the money to redesign this area. Albright says, at first, it was a foreign concept but has since become part of a new image Reno wants to project: a vibrant and livable city with lots of outdoor activities.
ALICIA BARBER: No place can really compete with the sort of international resort destination that Las Vegas has become. So I think invariably, there was kind of a sense that Reno must be like a second string Las Vegas, you know, or kind of the poor cousin.
STONE: Alicia Barber is author of the book "Reno's Big Gamble." That gamble was taking so much on a tourism industry that catered to visitors seeking divorces or a weekend of gaming. But as casinos have spread, Barber says, Reno's share of that market has declined.
BARBER: And all of a sudden, Reno was kind of finding that it wasn't as easy to attract those people and that perhaps the transformation of downtown, the core of downtown, to orient toward that tourist audience may have come at a loss.
STONE: Reno's proximity to the skiing of Lake Tahoe and to San Francisco's tech hub has helped it lure some California companies. Mike Kazmierski is with the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, and he says Reno's image needs to change for that to work, especially when a prospective business owner walks out of the airport and hails a cab.
MIKE KAZMIERSKI: Almost all of them had messages that were not real pro-business, at least not the kind of business that we want to attract.
STONE: In other words, brothels - legal in neighboring counties but not in Reno.
KAZMIERSKI: So we have gotten over 100 of them changed out. And our goal is to get them all changed out within the next year or two.
STONE: Now, those taxis have signs for the local philharmonic and more family-friendly businesses. Reno's effort to get locals and businesses to repopulate the downtown is not unique. Historian Alicia Barber says you can look at Rust Belt cities in the Midwest and see much of the same pattern. They're repurposing old warehouses or mill buildings for new industries but she says there's one thing that makes that trickier here.
BARBER: It's a little harder to figure out how to transform a hotel casino into something different because they are just a very unique architectural structure but it can be done.
STONE: Reno's downtown has an iconic arch displaying the longtime slogan: The Biggest Little City in the World. It's in the middle of the casino core here. But right next to it, a new type of business is opening up: a non-gaming hotel. Across its old casino facade is a huge outdoor climbing wall, inviting a different kind of crowd.
For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Reno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.