By Bill Hatfield
Special to Moonshine Ink
If Lake Tahoe is the jewel of the Sierra, then the Truckee River is the thread that ties it to other community treasures.
Downtown Reno’s Riverwalk District, located approximately between Bicentennial Park along West First Street to the Lake Street bridge, has lately emerged as one of those gems.
As the Reno/Tahoe area and the rest of the world recall what life was like before the pandemic, local event planners have been working diligently to bring folks safely back to the area to enjoy their community, the river, and local events.
In 2020, when businesses stood shuttered along the river and citizens avoided large public gatherings for safety concerns, the Reno River Festival was canceled and Artown, a month-long summer arts festival, offered mostly digital presentations. Both events are back downtown for 2021. But things along the river will look a little different this year.
RENO RIVER FESTIVAL
The Reno River Festival will return to the Truckee River in downtown Reno June 12 and 13 without its signature component, the whitewater competition.
According to Neil Horning, co-founder of Liquid Blue Events, which organizes the festival, early planning and permitting concerns were responsible.
“Some decisions had to be made pretty early on about what we could and could not do,” Horning said.
The event’s adjusted plan was approved by the Nevada Business and Industry Department in early April. That plan included pushing the festival from the traditional Mother’s Day weekend schedule to June this year, at which time the athletes who typically compete in the whitewater competition would not be available because of prior commitments and touring schedules.
“And typically, in June, there’s just not enough water flow to have a competition,” Horning added.
Despite the absence of the whitewater competition, the festival will still feature local craft beer, local food, over 100 vendors, and a full schedule of music at the Wingfield Park Amphitheater on both days.
“It’s been two years since the event has even taken place,” Horning said. “People really enjoy getting down there, whether [there are] whitewater competitions or not.”
This year is not the first time the festival has had to adapt to circumstances out of its control.
“The very first year we did the river festival … was a major drought year, and there was no water to have whitewater events that year, either,” Horning said. “But we set attendance records, still.”
Horning and his brother, Jess, who co-own Liquid Blue Events, purchased the event in 2015. He said the festival drew 30,000 to 35,000 people that year and continued to grow every year thereafter. “By 2019, we were upwards of 55,000 people for the two days,” he added.
This year, Horning said, they would be happy with between 15,000 and 20,000 attendees in a more intimate environment.
While the river festival is usually a free event, this year’s festival will charge $10 per adult, largely in an effort to keep track of the number of people who enter the area around the whitewater park.
Owned and maintained by the city, the whitewater park is currently open to the public with no restrictions, according to Reno’s director of parks and recreation, Jaime Schroeder. Users are still encouraged to take all necessary watersports precautions.
The whitewater park section of the river consists of class 2 and 3 rapids and has 11 drop pools, five in the north channel and six in the south channel. The river surrounds Wingfield Park and its amphitheater, where Artown has had its festival main stage for the past 25 years.
According to the nonprofit’s 2020 annual report, last summer Artown was still able to present 250 virtual events, workshops, live performances with limited attendance, and real-time broadcasts.
This year, the July festival moves its main stage away from Wingfield Park.
“Our plans to keep our artists and audiences safe require a larger festival footprint in 2021,” explained Artown’s marketing director, Oliver X. “In order for us to make sure that we do have a larger festival footprint than Covid-19 restrictions would allow in 2020, we went for the largest open space available, and that was Rancho San Rafael Regional Park.”
This year’s main stage can accommodate up to 2,000 spectators for its larger events in 6-foot-by-6-foot pods that will be between 6 and 18 feet away from each other.
“There’s no permanent structure at Rancho San Rafael, but we are installing a 40-foot-by-40-foot festival stage with full lighting and sound,” X said.
Though Artown now has venues all over the city — 125 to 150 event locations in a non-Covid year, according to X — its original purpose was to bring people back to the downtown area. X said that Artown hopes to return to Wingfield in the future, but the venue change was important to maintain a continuous presentation and to maximize the number of visitors the event can safely host.
Artown typically programs just 10% of the events, the remainder being planned and organized by the artists themselves. Though the main stage is relocated, the Riverwalk District will see its share of shows, events, openings, recitals, tours, classes, and workshops from July 1 to 31.
“Artown is a festival of, for, and by the artists and performers themselves, who are tasked to pick a concept, pick a date, pick a venue, and do a show,” X said. “Not being in Wingfield has also allowed the general public to rent those days that would have been rented by us.”
This year, event organizers expect about 300 individual events will be held at 80 to 100 venues citywide, including downtown locations such as the Nevada Museum of Art, the Lake Mansion Arts & Cultural Center, the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, Civic Center Plaza, the Renaissance hotel, and Wild River Grille, which will present local artists every weekend on its outdoor patio stage. The 54th annual Basque Festival will also be held in the California Building at Idlewild Park.
A full menu of activities for Artown can be found at artown.org.