I like to think that we at the Tribune don’t need to call “do-over” very often, but I’m calling it today. On Wednesday, Sparks Mayor Geno Martini delivered his State of the City speech, which I dutifully attended. When I got back to the office, I decided to reproduce the speech verbatim and then write an opinionated analysis of it instead of a straight news story.
As it turned out, I stumbled over my own job that day and my analysis wasn’t as good or complete as I would have liked. Normally when that happens I shrug and tell myself to do better on the next story, but this one is important enough for a do-over.
Both of my loyal readers might recall that The Wife and I looked at a few houses in Sparks before settling on one in West Sparks (as Martini likes to call Reno). That reader might also recall that I have mentioned that The Wife and I spend much of our time in Sparks, whether it be for shopping or leisure, on top of my time here for work. So despite not technically being a Sparks resident, I feel a stronger connection to this town than the town where my house is.
I said earlier in the week that Sparks is seemingly poised and ready for economic turnaround. New residential and business development are either here or on the way so when people have money to spend there will be houses and sporting goods and over-priced food waiting to be bought.
When it comes to my outlook on life, I have schizophrenia. Sometimes I look for the bright spot and am very optimistic but I can also be Mr. Doom and Gloom. Sometimes my outlook is natural and sometimes I take the opposite outlook of the person to whom I’m talking. I’m a bit of a devil’s advocate, which would explain why I was drawn to the journalism profession.
Even though I see the potential for the Legends at the Sparks Marina and all the other wonderful opportunities for economic growth that Martini highlighted in speech, my genetic need to argue the contrary kicks in. I can’t help it, so here goes.
Martini mentioned 80 new businesses opening at several major shopping centers in Sparks over the past year. That’s great and I know more businesses are on the way, but I want to know how many businesses closed in the past year. When I inquired for more details, city staffers told me that they track business licenses that are “retired,” which means they might have closed but they might have changed business names. I am working on trying to get a grasp of how many businesses in Sparks have permanently flipped their sign to “Closed.”
While I have interviewed some hopeful new business owners in town, I have also spoken to some who are very frustrated. When I heard Martini speak so hopefully about the future of business in Sparks, I thought back to the 1989 Michael Moore film “Roger & Me” about the demise of Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich. I am nowhere near the pessimist that Moore is, but when he talked about the demise of the automotive industry in Flint and the failed attempts to reinvigorate the town’s economy with tourist attractions, I couldn’t help but see a potential parallel.
Legends is being built on the site of a failed outlet mall. The investors who are buying bonds to finance the project based on its anticipated sales will sure be disappointed if it, too, fails. In my native Southern California, a hip retail project built on the site of an old mall reminds me a lot of the description of Legends. It had a few strong years but has seen a lot of stores and restaurants close and turn over and has become a hangout for teen troublemakers.
The example in Moore’s film was far more depressing. In “Roger & Me,” a new hotel and an amusement park intended to draw in tourist dollars both went bankrupt soon after opening. Sparks’ crime and poverty problems are nowhere near what happened in Flint, but there are concerns, which Martini’s speech did not ignore.
The city’s police force is 80 officers short of the desirable level based on the number of residents now living in Sparks. Martini complimented the department for doing more with less, and all the officers I have ever met seem to be very dedicated to their public service. Nonetheless, Martini pointed out that major crimes are up 3.2 percent and property crimes are up 4.4 percent. In his speech Martini said, “Here in Sparks, our public safety is in a state of crisis.” At first I thought he was going a bit far, but his statistics combined with the regular grumblings I hear from residents about lack of police responsiveness now make me think he might be right.
Both City Manager Shaun Carey and City Councilman Mike Carrigan said the primary issue facing Sparks is a budget shortfall driven by declining property, sales and other tax revenues.
“We are contracting services at a time when more is frankly needed,” Carey told me. He went on to say that while the value of Sparks businesses has skyrocketed in the last decade, the city’s share of sales tax revenues has not fairly reflected that growth since it gets a smaller slice of the tax pie than Reno or Washoe County.
The final major issue Martini addressed was roads — both improving existing roads and building new ones to accommodate current and future residents. Again, there are major funding shortfalls hindering both issues.
My optimism is strong enough to allow me to say that I am sure the national economy will rebound — eventually. Unfortunately, my pessimism comes back when I ask myself whether the Legends project will be Sparks’ savior. Even if our hard-working city folks are able to get more equitable distribution of tax money, I just don’t see that many tourists flocking to Sparks to buy baseball gloves or see a movie or eat dinner with dinosaurs. A part of me also doesn’t want them to come. I have spent the last 17 years of my life living in the shadow of Disneyland and I’m not anxious to live in another tourist town.
Since I have already spent a lot of words dwelling on the negatives, I don’t really have room left to talk about the positives. But since I want to at least provide my readers the chance to see what the positives are, I will refer you to them. Go to www.dailysparkstribune.com and type “Martini” in the search box. Click on “Search” and look for the headline “Mayor Martini gives State of the City address” to read the entire speech.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find something to fill the empty half of my glass.