By Scott Sonner
RENO — University of Nevada, Reno officials knew it was a bit of a gamble when they agreed to lease a downtown casino hotel tower for a year and turn it into a college dormitory.
They expected some criticism but had less than six weeks to find rooms for 1,300 students after a July 5 gas explosion shut down their two biggest residence halls, one for at least two years.
The challenge was compounded by their determination to house as many as possible in the same building — a tall order in an extremely tight housing market where an influx of new jobs at Tesla, Microsoft, Apple and elsewhere has sent rental rates skyrocketing.
Yet with fall classes beginning Monday, school officials say there’s been less pushback than anticipated to the unorthodox arrangement with Eldorado Resorts’ Circus Circus, at one end of Reno’s main casino drag about a half-mile (800 meters) from campus.
For nearly every student who has requested reassignment out of the Circus Circus, there’s been another who has asked to move into the newly renovated hotel, where the former wedding chapel is being converted into a study center with USB ports.
Instead of a smoky floor of poker tables and slot machines, students enter the nonsmoking, nongambling tower through a quiet marbled foyer with potted plants and a security guard. Upstairs they find queen- and kingsize beds, 40-inch (100-centimeter) plasma TVs, mini-fridges and private bathrooms.
“I don’t want to mislead you. There were a handful that were just, ‘No way,’” said Shannon Ellis, vice president for student services.
But as of Friday, only 19 students remained on the list requesting reassignment from what’s now called “Wolf Pack Tower.” Thirty of the 89 students who originally wanted out have changed their minds. About 40 have requested transfers in, and the list is growing.
The 28-floor hotel is exclusively for UNR students and accessible only with key cards through a single entrance with 24-hour security. An indoor pedestrian bridge connecting the tower to the casino across the street has been closed.
Kailyn JBeily, a resident assistant at Wolf Pack Tower, planned to serve as an alternate RA at an on-campus dorm but jumped at the chance for fancier digs, with queen-sized beds in doubles and California kings in singles.
Twin beds are standard issue in the school’s other dorms, where a total of about 2,100 students will live this year. The oldest dorm dates to 1896. Most have community bathrooms on each floor instead of private baths, and students must provide their own TVs and mini-refrigerators.
“Everybody’s really excited,” JBeily said as students began arriving at Wolf Pack Tower this week. People on her floor are especially stoked about the beds and “having your own bathroom.”
The sophomore from Sacramento, California, lived last year in Argenta Hall, the dorm most severely damaged in the July blast. She was gone when the explosion occurred in the mostly empty building. Eight people suffered minor injuries. Argenta Hall is expected to remain closed for two years, while neighboring Nye Hall could reopen as soon as next summer.
School officials took to social media to help make their case as they negotiated the $21.7 million deal to take over the former 907- room Sky Tower, which already had been renovated last year into a smoke-free, gamblingfree building separate from Circus Circus’ other tower a block away.
They traveled to Las Vegas for a pair of parent-teacher town hall meetings to explain that buses will shuttle students to and from campus every 15 minutes, and the academic support and programming will be the same or better as at the dorms.
“There is still some anxiety, probably more from parents,” Romando Nash, UNR’s associate vice president for student life services, acknowledged after one town hall. But he said that was based more on downtown safety in general and separation from the main campus.
Northeastern University in Boston, Georgia State in Atlanta and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are among other schools that housed students in private hotels in recent years. But none was affiliated with a casino.
A handful of people voiced disapproval during a Las Vegas town hall, including an incoming freshman’s mother who said she didn’t even want her son to have a Circus Circus parking pass, let alone live there.
University President Marc Johnson said the school “pretty much required that we control the entire building” so it could replicate the freshman dorm experience. He said the school was fortunate that the casino-hotel closest to campus recently joined the growing number converting at least part of their property to no smoking or gambling “to stay in this market for conventions and the like.”
“It is not a casino building. It is not a casino tower. It happens to be a hotel facility owned by a casino-hotel company,” Johnson said.
Ellis, the student services vice president, said the only real difference from other dorms is the extra security, including an on-site campus police substation.
A convenience store and coffee shop are down the hall from the former wedding chapel, where tutors will provide 40 hours of free academic support a week like they do at other dorms. Lounges on each end of each floor have flat-screen TVs and microwaves. A new laundry room is under construction with 65 washers and dryers.
Parents and students who arrived this week “were greeted like at every other residence hall,” Ellis said.
“There was the same synergy, the excitement, the crying — all the things that go on during moving day. Parents were saying, ‘I’m a convert,’” she said.
Steve Selbo of San Jose, California, was a bit apprehensive until he helped move in his daughter, an incoming junior transfer student.
“Now that we’re here, you can tell it’s separate from the casino, and everyone living in this building is a student,” he said.
Two incoming freshmen from Las Vegas said they have some concerns about getting to campus for meals, but the rooms are a big upgrade from the dorms. They’ve seen no indication the so-called “circus life” will be rowdier than the dorms. “It’s been the opposite,” Keean Goffe said.
Neither Keean Goffe nor Alonso Gibson expect the neighboring casinos will be a distraction.
“I’m not here to party,” Gibson said. “I’m here to get an education.”
Besides, Goffe added, “I don’t think anyone my age is interested in slots.”