Remodeling Harrah’s; remaking lives

luxe industries hires, trains underemployed and unsheltered people

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The first floor of Harrah's Reno north tower, where the valet entrance was located, in the midst of construction on May 28. Shops will occupy the space when the Reno City Center opens next year.

Many of the workers turning Harrah’s Reno into the multi-use Reno City Center project are not only remodeling an iconic property – many are also rebuilding their lives.

“If it wasn’t for this job I’d probably still be homeless, bouncing from job to job,” said Felix Garcia, who was hired in September by Luxe Industries LLC, the company doing the design, demolition and construction at the site, a hotel-casino that had 980 rooms in its three towers.

Garcia, who works on the demolition team, suffered a spinal injury that affected his ability to work at his previous job. He was hired by Luxe in September, but said he was embarrassed to admit he was homeless. He eventually explained his situation to Sean Cross, his supervisor.

“Sean is an old friend, and I told him the truth,” Garcia said. “Sean said, ‘go back to work; by the end of the day, I’ll give you a key (to one of the hotel rooms).’” The company also provides two meals a day to its workers, pays for their training and covers the fees for the tests needed to qualify for various jobs.

Some workers live at the site

Eight months later, Garcia holds certifications for several types of construction positions, lives in an apartment and owns a car. “Luxe gave me the opportunity to build my life back up,” he said. Garcia is among 200 workers at the two-square-block Harrah’s project, 70 of whom live in hotel rooms in the property’s east tower.

Felix Garcia

The company plans to hire about 400 more workers over the next three months as it transforms the 1.4 million square foot, 980-room property into a mixed-use development with retail, apartments and offices. Harrah’s Reno got its start as a storefront bingo parlor on Virginia Street 84 years ago. The company grew into an international gaming behemoth. Caesar’s Entertainment sold the Reno property to CAI Investments, which completed the purchase in September.

The hotel-casino was slated to remain in business until October 2020, but it closed permanently when all non-essential Nevada businesses were shuttered during the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020.

Training new hires

Hiring and training underemployed and homeless people to work on what has been called the “most ambitious adaptive project” in Reno history is the brainchild of Brent Lovett, director of design and construction at Luxe Industries. Lovett describes his position as the firm’s “imagineer.”

Brent Lovett, Imagineer

“I was told it would be impossible to do the project due to a vast employment shortage in the Reno market,” Lovett said. “We looked at that as an opportunity to change how people think and reach out to all levels of the community and people from all walks of life who maybe weren’t involved in the construction industry.”

He said it didn’t matter if job applicants were homeless, on parole or just out of rehabilitation centers. “We listened and got to know people. We want to find a path for them to get back to where they want to be in life.”

Lovett said the plan was met with a lot of skepticism, but the results speak for themselves. “We have a lot of success stories,” he said.

Moving up the ladder

 Sean Cross, who helped Garcia get a room at the hotel, found himself living on the street after going through a divorce in Denver. His travels led him first to Las Vegas and then to Reno, where he heard about jobs at the Reno City Center project. He got the job and a room in the east tower.

Sean Cross

“I was a laborer for one day and then moved up,” Cross said. “I’m not going to stop; I’ll keep working my way up… This job gave me a chance to get my head together and get out of debt for the first time in my adult life.”

Ryan Wells, is one of the 40 former Harrah’s Reno employees hired by Luxe, and was among the first four people to get a job at the site. He is now IT supervisor for the project and has seen the hiring and training program’s effect on his coworkers. “We look after each other here,” he said. “It’s a participatory and caring environment; it’s the way a workplace should be.”

At age 61, Ron Wilson didn’t think he’d be able to be hired by Luxe, let alone keep up with the people half his age on the demolition team. He got the job and a room. “I’ve got my OSHA and asbestos mitigation certification and I’ve been able to save money,” he said. “Luxe encouraged me to meet challenges and I did. My self esteem is over the top.”

SCREENSHOT/LUXE INDUSTRIES: Jacqueline Lopez , Luxe abatement coordinator, in her room at Harrah’s Reno east tower.

Getting certifications

Jacqueline Lopez left her home as a teenager and had been couch surfing with friends before landing a job at the project. She is now an asbestos mitigation coordinator and lives at the site. “I wasn’t homeless, but I was house hopping,” she said. “Here, if you want to learn something they will teach you. I didn’t know anything about construction and didn’t even know what asbestos was. Now I have certifications; I’ve come a long way.”

Lovett said the Reno City Center renovation project eventually will employ 600 workers. The first phase – the renovation of the north tower — is scheduled to be complete by year’s end.  “Our goal is to move people in there either by late November or early December and then have a soft opening in 2022,” he said.

Plans for Reno City Center call for a total of 530 market-rate apartment units. Construction on the south tower will pick up when the north tower work reaches the 17th floor. The east tower, where 70 employees are housed, will be the last tower to be remodeled.

IMAGE/CAI IINVESTMENTS: An artist’s rendering of Reno City Center after the Harrah’s Reno property is renovated.

Retail and office space

The center will include 78,800 square feet of retail space on the first floor, which was Harrah’s casino. The second-through-fourth floors will have 150,000 square feet of office space.

Lovett said a single tenant will occupy most of that office space and have “between 400 to 600 employees.” Other future tenants, he said, include a Starbucks, an Asian fusion restaurant, a beer pub, an urban grocer, a UPS store, a flower shop and a doggie daycare service.

The experimental hiring and training program will be used as a model for other projects, Lovett said, including the construction of a Kimpton Hotel on Court Street, which also is a CAI Investments’ property. He said the workforce program has proven its worth at the Harrah’s remodel.

“Our message to our workers is ‘you can do this and we will help you,’” Lovett said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The developer has said that Harrah’s Steakhouse (shown here on May 28) probably won’t survive the renovation project, but local residents and Lovett are lobbying to reopen the restaurant, which was a popular local eatery for both business lunches and for generations of Renoites who celebrated special occasions there for decades. Reno City Center plans to use the basements of the three old hotel towers for storage.

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