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BOOKS NOT BETS: Nevada casino hotel to serve as college dorm

The Circus Circus casino hotel tower in downtown Reno, Nevada, where about 1,300 university students are living this year after a gas explosion shut down two dorms in July. The non-gambling, non-smoking building was leased to the university for $21.7 million and has since been turned into a dorm with rooms set aside for students during the 2019-2020 school year. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

The Circus Circus casino hotel tower in downtown Reno, Nevada, where about 1,300 university students are living this year after a gas explosion shut down two dorms in July. The non-gambling, non-smoking building was leased to the university for $21.7 million and has since been turned into a dorm with rooms set aside for students during the 2019-2020 school year. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

By SCOTT SONNER
Associated Press

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Even as UW-Eau Claire officials have dealt with overcrowding in recent years by housing students in hotels, their counterparts at the University of Nevada, Reno have gone them one further by leasing a downtown casino hotel tower for a year and turning it into a college dormitory.

When they made that decision, officials at the Reno campus knew they were in for some criticism. But they also were contending with a deadline of less than six weeks to find rooms for 1,300 students after a gas explosion on July 5 had shut down their two biggest residence halls, one for at least two years.

Their difficulties were compounded by their determination to house as many students as possible in the same building — a tall order in an extremely tight housing market. An influx of new jobs at Tesla, Microsoft, Apple and elsewhere had recently sent rental rates skyrocketing.

Yet with fall classes beginning Monday, school officials said there’s been less resistance than expected to the unorthodox arrangement with Eldorado Resorts’ Circus Circus. That casino stands at one end of Reno’s main drag, about a half-mile from campus.

For nearly every student who has requested reassignment out of Circus Circus, there’s been another who has asked to move into the newly renovated hotel, where a former wedding chapel is being turned into a study center with USB ports.

Instead of a smoky floor with poker tables and slot machines, the nonsmoking, nongambling tower has a quiet, marbled foyer with potted plants and a security guard. Upstairs are queen- and king-size beds, 40-inch 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 by 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 getting longer.

The 28-floor hotel is exclusively for UNR students and accessible only with key cards, which have to be used at a single entrance with 24-hour security. An indoor pedestrian bridge, which had linked the tower to the casino, 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 opportunity to have fancier accommodations.

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 communal 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 happy 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 explosion. Argenta Hall is expected to remain closed for two years, while the neighboring Nye Hall could reopen as soon as next summer.

School officials took to social media to help make their case as they negotiated a $21.7 million deal to take over the former 907-room Sky Tower, which was turned last year into a smoke-free, gambling-free building separate from Circus Circus’ other tower, which stands a block away.

“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.

The University of Nevada in Reno and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are not the only schools to have housed students in private hotels in recent years. So have Northeastern University in Boston, Georgia State in Atlanta. But the Reno campus’s project has the distinction of being the only one to be affiliated with a casino.

During a recent town-hall meeting in Las Vegas, a handful of people voiced disapproval of the arrangement. Among them was a 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 of operations that were converting at least part of their properties 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 between Circus Circus and other dorms is the extra security, including an on-site campus police substation.

A convenience store and coffee shop are down the hall from Circus Circus’ former wedding chapel, where tutors will provide 40 hours of free academic support a week, as they now do at other dorms.

Lounges on each end of each floor have flat-screen TVs and microwaves. A new laundry room is under construction and will offer 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, a 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 they’ve seen no sign the so-called “circus life” will be rowdier at the converted hotel than in regular dorms. “It’s been the opposite,” Keean Goffe said.

Neither Keean Goffe nor Alonso Gibson expects 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.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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