Investigations of Reno: My Night at the Ponderosa

Investigations of Reno: My Night at the Ponderosa

While many motels and long stay hotels are being torn down, this is worsening the local affordable housing crisis. Reynolds School of Journalism student Ryan Suppe recently stayed at the Ponderosa Hotel in Reno, Nevada, for one night and shared his account with the Reynolds Sandbox to find out more about residents depending on these now endangered housing options.

Image for postI booked a room, explored the building and surrounding area and talked to some of the people who call the Ponderosa Hotel home.

The Ponderosa Hotel, Gentrification, Rezoning Issues and Strip Clubs

Over the past seven months, the Reno City Council has pursued a plan to rezone areas where adult businesses can operate, with plans in motion to force strip clubs and other adult businesses to relocate within the next five years. The council proposed the plan last fall and was met with mixed reactions from the community. Some said they were happy to see the strip clubs go. Others called the plan gentrification.

At the center of the debate is the Wild Orchid, a strip club prominently placed in the city?s eclectic Midtown District. Attached to the club is a short-term and long-term residential building called the Ponderosa Hotel. The property would be a valuable commodity if the owner, Kami Keshmiri, was forced to relocate, but he?s fighting back.

After the rezoning plan was announced, Keshmiri threatened to nearly double the rent of Ponderosa tenants. The tenants, faced with an uncertain living situation in the middle of a housing crisis, immediately protested the city?s plan, voicing their concerns at a public meeting. If the Wild Orchid was kicked out, they would be too.

As housing costs continue to rise, the Ponderosa seems to be the only option for its mostly low-income residents, but many complain of poor living conditions. Channel 4 reported in November that, despite complaints, the hotel regularly meets health code inspections.

I stayed a night a the Ponderosa because I wanted to see what the living conditions were like for myself. I was only there for one night, so this story is not a comprehensive account of life at the hotel. Names of the people portrayed have been changed.

Image for postThe Hotel Ponderosa seems to be on a downward trend.

Check-In

I arrived at the Ponderosa Hotel around 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. I parked my car and went inside. I had called earlier that afternoon hoping to book a room. They had a room available but didn?t take reservations, a woman told me.

Just outside the front door was a crowd of about half a dozen people hanging around and smoking cigarettes. A couple of them were in wheelchairs or power scooters. One man had a peg leg and another wore a U.S. Army veteran hat. They talked with each other casually and seemed to be friends. They looked at me curiously as I slid through their plumes of smoke into the lobby.

The lobby was pretty standard: front desk, convenience store, slot machines and giant bookshelves ? empty except for an unopened stack of Reno News and Reviews. A woman behind the front desk helped me get my room. I paid $55 in cash for the night. She took my ID and copied it with a machine I?ve never seen before. I didn?t ask many questions, and neither did she.

She told me my room number, gave me my key card and opened one of the two elevators for me with a button behind the desk. You can?t call for the elevator yourself. Their rules on visitors are strict: no non-residents after 10pm unless they pay a $10 fee and show their ID to the front desk.

I showed myself to the room.

My walk through the sixth floor hallway at the Ponderosa Hotel. The hotel is a short-term and long-term stay housing building for mostly low-income residents.

Helpful Tenants

I took the elevator to the sixth floor. It was the top floor of the six-story building, and I thought maybe overnight guests got the penthouse. They don?t.

After getting off the elevator, a couple spotted me and knew immediately I was lost.

?What room are you looking for?? the man asked.

?631,? I said.

?It?s way down the hall on the right,? he said. ?See these little crevices? It?s the second or third one down.?

By ?crevices? he meant the space in front of each pair of doors along the hallway. I wouldn?t know what to call those either. I?ll call them crevices from now on too, I think. I thanked them and walked on.

Image for postThe hallway was dim and dirty.

Rage, Alarms and Notes

There was some trash lining the walls, waiting to be taken to the dumpster. The paint on the walls was spotty, probably either from wear over time or from touch-ups to cover graffiti. Someone had painted the word ?RAGE? on the side of a fire extinguisher. There was an alarm ? a steady, piercing sound ? going off somewhere at the end of the hall. I think it might?ve been from a door remaining open for too long.

Just across from my room was a wheelchair outside an open door. It had smiling cartoon suns with sunglasses on the wheels, and it was unaccompanied except for a fluffy, white dog. The dog was panting and seemed happy, but I?m sure it was even more annoyed by the high frequency alarm than I was.

There was a note taped to my door from management explaining rooms were going to be inspected in a couple days for repairs and ?to address any pest control issues that will require heat treatment or spraying.? I wouldn?t be staying for that long, but I was reminded to keep an eye out for the bugs I had heard so much about.

Image for postA notice of entry for inspection on the door of a room at the Ponderosa Hotel. The hotel is often criticized for problems with cockroaches and bed bugs.

Bugs and Drugs

The internet reviews for the Ponderosa are not good. Other than personal beef with employees in the Google reviews, the main concerns seem to be bugs and drugs. Reviewers say the place is infested with cockroaches and management won?t do anything about it. The note on my door might prove they are taking some measures to deal with the bugs. Others say the place is a hotbed for drugs, and management doesn?t do anything about that either. There?s one photo tagged at the Ponderosa on Google Maps which shows a bowl of cannabis. Hard to argue with that one.

During my stay, I didn?t see any cockroaches, and I took the proper precautions for bed bugs ? I brought my own pillow and slept on top of my blanket. I didn?t see any drugs but the vibe of drug activity was apparent.

Image for postA room with a view on Midtown Reno.

A Spacious Room

My room was spacious and mostly clean. It had either a queen or full bed with sheets, a comforter, one pillow and plastic wrap around the box spring. There was a dresser and a lamp, a table with a phone and a chair and a kitchenette with a mini fridge. The television was probably as old as me, but it worked fine and had the standard cable channels. The bathroom was all in order except for a crack in the door near the knob. It looked like someone had kicked it in.

Room 631 faces north and, being the top floor, has a nice view of downtown Reno, the area where this hotel and its residents may no longer be welcome if the City Council succeeds in their rezoning efforts. Two Reno police cars were parked on the street below.

After exploring the room, I went back down to my car to get the rest of my stuff. I took the stairs this time and noticed all of the security cameras that were documenting my stay.

The smokers out front hadn?t budged, but there was a new man in the lobby. He wasn?t a resident but was apparently invited by someone who lived there. The woman at the front desk questioned him briefly and then let him in the elevator. I grabbed my bag and some beer from my car and went back up.

A few friends of mine arrived around 7:30 p.m. as the sun was setting. They were working on a separate story about the Wild Orchid and wanted to check out my room. I took the elevator down to meet them in the parking lot. On the way down, the elevator stopped at the second floor. The visiting man from the lobby got on with me.

His hands were busy with something, so I glanced at them. He was counting a stack of wrinkly bills.

Image for postImage for postImage for postImage for postImage for postImage for postPhotos from my room at the Ponderosa Hotel. I stayed in the hotel for one night recently to find out what living conditions were like.

Wait Station

Last year, when the City Council first decided to move ahead with their rezoning plans, the city hired a private investigator to uncover any illicit activity in or around strip clubs downtown. While the investigator found some drug use, excessive touching of dancers, fighting and possible prostitution at other clubs, he said the Wild Orchid was professional and well-run.

But, he noted, the businesses around the club see it as a nuisance. He said the Wild Orchid is ?an eyesore and unwelcome element in an otherwise booming part of town.? According to a Reno Gazette-Journal article from September, business owners in the area attribute problems to the hotel more than the club. The investigator said the Ponderosa is a ?haven for transients, homeless people and prostitutes.?

Image for postNearby business owners complain more about the hotel than the strip club.

A Former Tenant Speaks Up

We spent about an hour near the smoking section outside the lobby trying to talk to residents of the hotel. The crowd thinned out by the end of the night. Now there were just two or three smokers at a time.

One was a woman we?ll call Mary. She was sitting against the wall with her things when the front desk attendant told her she couldn?t be there anymore.

Mary used to live in the Ponderosa, but she?s been homeless for the last four years. She is an artist. She has family in both Reno/Sparks and in Arizona. She?s planning on moving back to Arizona soon and plans to attend art school in the fall.

There are plenty of drugs, like heroin and meth, at the Ponderosa, she said, but not as much as there used to be. And most of the dealing is inconspicuous and people are careful about it. Now cockroaches are the main problem.

Mary said the hotel is a popular spot for elderly people who just want a cheap place to stay with a locked door. Ambulances are always there, she said.

?They just need a place where they can lock their door and be happy and well inside,? Mary said. ?This is a good wait station. A good place to stop for a minute and wait for a certain time.?

The roughly $750 rent at the Ponderosa would eat up most of her disability check, but Mary would still move back if she was welcome.

We drew a lot of attention to ourselves while we talked to Mary. The woman at the front desk seemed uncomfortable. She told me if my friends wanted to come back inside, she would need to see their IDs. We were standing right underneath a security camera which faces the parking lot. I know management watches those closely. A couple years ago, another friend of mine was towed from their lot after just 20 minutes when he parked there and went to a restaurant down the road.

Image for postI left the Ponderosa parking lot and went across the street, so people would forget about us.

Being Watched?

I was nervous about people watching us and wondering what we were up to. It was obvious we weren?t regulars at the hotel. Nobody ever asked why were there, and I didn?t want to lie if they did. We walked across the street for a beer, hoping they would forget about us for awhile.

We were at the bar for about an hour, and on our way back to the hotel there was a Reno police car near the entrance. Two cops got in the car and left as we approached the lobby entrance. About a minute later, one of the residents who I?d seen earlier, rolled outside in his power scooter.

I didn?t ask his name, but we?ll call him Joe. He was thin with gray hair. He smoked filterless cigarettes, and he constantly moved his scooter around with the joystick as he spoke. Joe has lived in the Ponderosa for three years. He said his floor is one of the quieter ones and other floors in the hotel are worse. But tonight, the action was on his.

Joe?s ex-wife?s boyfriend started a fight with him over Joe?s nine-year-old daughter. Joe and his ex-wife both still live in the hotel, but she stays with her boyfriend and Joe stays with his daughter. Tonight, the boyfriend was on something, Joe said. He?d never seen him like that before.

The boyfriend wanted to kick Joe?s ex-wife out of his room, but he couldn?t because rent wasn?t due until the first of the month, Joe said.

The boyfriend was threatening to call Child Protective Services on Joe and his ex-wife over the daughter, though I don?t know why. During the altercation, the boyfriend threw Joe?s ex-wife against a wall. Joe called the cops.

?I don?t want my daughter to see that,? Joe said. ?If he calls CPS tomorrow at least there?s a report.?

Joe pleaded his case to me, and then announced he was going to bed. He went back to his room on the quieter floor of the hotel where his nine-year-old daughter was probably sleeping. I went back to my room, watched a couple reruns of Friends on the old boxy TV and called it a night.

Image for postImage for postLeft: A view from the outside of the Ponderosa Hotel. Right: Another view of the sixth floor hallway.

Check-Out

I slept until about 7:00 a.m. the next morning. Not the best sleep of my life, but also not the worst. I had a dream that Keshmiri broke into my room and looked through my things. It was just a dream, but it might give you some idea of what my unconscious mind thinks of the Ponderosa owner.

I packed my bag, brushed my teeth and headed down to the lobby. This time a man was working at the front desk. I told him I was checking out and gave him my room key. He didn?t ask for a review of my stay, and I didn?t offer one.

There were a couple people playing the slot machines in the lobby and the smoking section was bustling again just outside ? business as usual, even this early in the morning. For the city, the business of cleaning up downtown of places like the Ponderosa is continuing as well.

In April, the City Council doubled down on its two-year plan for strip club enforcement. They now say they will try to enact new rules on the existing clubs, like banning private rooms, instituting an age minimum for dancers and prohibiting lap dances. And the clubs might very well be forced to relocate. Where the residents of the Ponderosa will go is uncertain.

Reporting by Ryan Suppe shared with Reynolds Sandbox

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