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Jacobs Entertainment request to annex street near historic church prompts pushback

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is seen from across the street.
Bert Johnson
KUNR Public Radio
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church as seen on Feb. 29, 2024. Established in 1907, it’s the oldest African American congregation in Nevada.

A routine item before the Reno City Council ignited sudden controversy last week when it pitted a wealthy developer against a cultural landmark.

When it comes to city council meetings, a request for the abandonment of a public right-of-way isn’t usually the most provocative item on the agenda.

But Reno elected officials got heated during their Feb. 28 meeting, when Jacobs Entertainment asked them to postpone a vote that would have given the Colorado-based developer part of Bell Street downtown.

At one point, Mayor Hillary Schieve and ward 1 council member Jenny Brekhus got into a verbal sparring match over the mayor’s handling of the controversy.

“You cannot come up here and plan a city in an eight-hour council meeting,” Schieve argued.

“You can, if we had done the Northwest Quadrant [Plan], instead of all your behind-the-scenes meetings with Mr. Jacobs,” Brekhus shot back, referring to part of the city’s 2017 Downtown Action Plan.

“There’s nothing behind the scenes, council member Brekhus,” Schieve replied.

Just days earlier, what would normally be a routine administrative matter sparked public blowback: This abandonment request pitted Jacobs Entertainment against Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, Nevada’s oldest African American congregation.

The church’s pastor, Reverend Dr. Debra A. Whitlock Lax, was alarmed when she learned about the request. That’s because, for the last seven years, CEO Jeff Jacobs has been demolishing the neighborhood around Bethel A.M.E.

“Gentrification usually happens to people of color,” Lax said.

A yellow public notice is attached to a tree, announcing a public hearing for Jacobs Entertainment’s request to abandon part of Bell Street in downtown Reno.
Bert Johnson
KUNR Public Radio
City officials posted a public notice announcing the hearing date for Jacobs Entertainment’s request for abandonment down the block from Bethel A.M.E.

Jacobs has been accumulating downtown properties since late 2016, then knocking down the buildings to stitch together massive parcels of land. Eventually, he plans to create a new entertainment district stretching from Keystone Avenue to West Street.

Abandonment requests are common in projects like this. Often, a developer asks the city to give up an alley or a street that goes through an area where they want to build.

Jacobs’ most recent abandonment request would bring the developer’s property line right up to the historic church, which was built in 1907.

The congregation now meets in Sparks, but they rent the original sanctuary to another church. Eventually, they want to turn it into a museum. Lax said the abandonment request would have limited access and taken away street parking.

“Not just Reno, but in all of America, our history seems to be kind of pushed aside, or dismissed, or not respected as something that should be heard,” she said.

Meanwhile, Jacobs has never said exactly what he plans to build. He’s floated several high-profile ideas, like a zipline between casinos or an amphitheater – but in an exclusive interview with KUNR, Jacobs explained those plans have been scrapped.

“The average age of our customers is probably, you know, 55 or 60,” he said. “A zip line wasn't at the top of their list of amenities.”

Jacob’s development agreement with the city puts very few restrictions on what he can do with his land. But Jacobs said he’ll finally announce his master plan in about a month.

“We’ll be revealing all the various components of our entertainment district vision,” he said.

According to Caleb MacLean with the Reno-Sparks Tenants Union, the city of Reno has given Jacobs too much leeway.

“It’s the classic tale of, ‘Money talks,’” he said. “When you have as much money as Jacobs, then you can talk pretty loudly.”

MacLean also blamed Jacobs for making the housing crisis worse, because the neighborhood where he’s planning to build used to have numerous cheap, weekly motels.

Some were notorious for poor living conditions. But they were housing of last resort for low-income residents – until Jacobs started buying them up and knocking them down.

A commemorative plaque on the façade of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church lists the date of the church's founding, 1907.
Bert Johnson
KUNR Public Radio
A commemorative plaque on the façade of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church lists the date of the church’s founding.

Kenneth Dalton said he believes Jacobs was surprised by the public backlash.

“Jacobs Entertainment didn’t think, at the time, that anybody really cared about the church and what was going on over there,” he said.

Dalton is founder of Our Story, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving Northern Nevada’s African American history.

Lax pointed out that urban development in the U.S. often comes at the expense of African American communities.

“Twenty years later, there is no property to give to your next generation. There’s no inheritance, and there’s no history,” she said.

After the blowback to Jacobs’ abandonment request, Schieve stepped in. She set up a meeting between Lax and Jacobs, and the developer delayed his abandonment request.

Jacobs said the meeting helped him understand where Lax and her congregation are coming from. Meanwhile, Lax is feeling optimistic now that the channels of communication are open.

“The church is a survivor,” she said. “And it’s gonna survive, even with this.”

But during last week’s city council meeting, Lax also put Jacobs on notice: She promised that if he doesn’t negotiate in good faith, church supporters will fill the council chambers in protest.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.

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