Reno Sees Future, and It Isn’t Casinos

Unlike Las Vegas, city embraces manufacturing as economic driver

RENO, Nev.—For much of the past half century, Reno moved in lock step with its glamorous big sister, Las Vegas, their fortunes rising and falling with their mainstay industry, gambling.

But Reno is now betting on a different economic future, turning its back on casino tourism as an economic driver in favor of becoming a manufacturing hub for everything from drones to car batteries.

Since 2011, the “Biggest Little City in the World” has recruited about 100 companies to locate or expand here with more than 10,000 new jobs—many cajoled by a former West Point cadet who instilled military discipline into Reno’s economic-development office.

He had a hand from a cowboy-hat-clad brothel owner turned civic booster, who was a pivotal player in persuading electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc. to build its coveted $5 billion “Gigafactory” here.

Reno landed the Tesla deal in no small part because of a $1.3 billion tax-break package signed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Critics saw the tax break, the state’s largest ever and among the biggest such enticements nationally, as a giveaway of public funds.

Some residents of cross-state rival Las Vegas, a metropolitan region that is home to roughly three-fourths of the state’s 2.8 million residents, seethed at what they saw as Mr. Sandoval, a Republican from Reno, favoring his hometown.

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