From a Lineage of Sicilian-Americans Who Built and Bought Motels in Reno
Josella Starbuck’s family history is complicated and involves several of Reno’s downtown and Midtown motels. It also intertwines with much of Reno’s history, from quicky divorces, to racism against black musicians, to casinos lowering their room prices all the way to current rebranding efforts and gentrification.
At the root of it for her were her grandfather and great uncle, Sicilian-Americans who first came to Reno from Buffalo, for their own divorces in the 1940s. Her grandfather started a bar and then built the Swiss Motel. With that early success, he built the Virginia Motel, and then the family also bought the Vacation Motor Lodge and the former Ranch Motel.
Part of Josella’s childhood was spent in a house attached to the Virginia Motel and its office, and she remembers her brother, as young as 13, in charge of the front desk. “He would run the office because my parents stayed open all the time. We hardly ever went anywhere as a family … we had no family vacations,“ she told us during a recent interview in Midtown, with construction all around us, forcing her “to grit her teeth.”
In first grade, she said she realized for the first time the stigma attached not only to those who live in motels but also to those who run them. As part of an introductory assignment, she boasted about how proud she was to live and work with her family in the same place, but she says this confused her classmates.
From Working with Casinos to Competing Against Them
Initially, Josella says patrons were a “mix of people staying a few nights, traveling salesmen, musicians, and people in transition waiting for an apartment or a house.”
Casino employees would come by the motels with gambling coupons, as well as Christmas gifts, to attract more patrons.
During the 1960s, when Reno was a destination for big concerts, black musicians were prevented from staying at casinos where they played, so they would sleep at the motels. Josella’s mom once met Tina Turner, who she shared a birthday with, looking for musicians she knew.
But by the 1980s, when Circus Circus had started slashing its nightly room prices, Josella says motels became more of “a housing type situation for folks.”
“We don't do any nightlies now because there's too much risks with people trashing the room, leaving or not leaving when it's 11 o'clock,” she said of how it has remained that way since.
Surviving the Recession and A Changing Clientele, but Still Shunned by Midtown
Josella says her customers now are mostly elderly people on fixed income. Some she says have been at the motel for eight years.
During the Great Recession, she says, she was down to six tenants out of 35 rooms. She decided to lower prices to survive. While some say motel life isn’t affordable, Josella says at the Vacation Motor Lodge several tenants are paying just $450 a month, bills included.
“You don't have to pay a power bill. You don't have to pay for linens, you don't have to pay for basic cable and your heat. Every room has a mini fridge and a microwave and you do have that comfort of knowing if something breaks, it gets replaced. We have some people here who are surviving on maybe $700 or $800 in Social Security,” she said. “And one thing that we haven't done here is raise the rates extraordinarily high. And those people who have been here a long time, a lot of them are only paying $50 more than when they came in on that special rate that we were running nine years ago.”
While motels cater to a less affluent clientele, many new stores in Midtown now have extremely pricey items or menus, but Josella isn’t impressed. “I just feel like we've been here before Midtown. A lot of things that I've observed in ‘Midtown’ are a lot of empty storefronts. People who open and then are gone. We are kind of the black sheep of Midtown. We've never been asked to join a Midtown association…. I think we'll probably still be here when Midtown is another lost memory … We do tend to get ahead of ourselves in this town.”
Helping the Community?
Josella thinks motels have value for the community, even now. “If anything, it's just a safe, clean place for people who simply can't afford high rents,” she said. “A lot of times people can't get the money together for a deposit to live in an apartment, or they don't have the credit.”
She says when people complain motel rooms are dirty, sometimes they don’t understand there are limits to what motel owners can do to force tenants to clean them up. “The man in his castle law applies to motels, so we can't just go in there and clean it. We can't go in there and tell them what to do. If they want to sleep on the floor, we can't tell them you have to sleep in a bed.” The man in his castle is a legal doctrine designating a person's legally occupied place in which that person has protections and immunities.
Josella says previous suggestions to force motels to have kitchenettes in all rooms would put most motels out of business because of associated plumbing costs, but she says she hasn’t seen any movement in that direction in Reno lately.
Overall, she says, she resents politicians and media reports depicting motels as blight and unlivable. “It makes me angry because they're not speaking to the residents,” she said. “I mean, nobody here is forced to stay. It's a month to month lease, sometimes a week, or two week lease.”
“I would really like them to come and talk to the people who actually live here and choose to stay here,” she said of media and politicians. “I think we're providing a service for the community. There's not enough housing now as it is. There's not enough housing for families. Over at the Virginia Motel, we have working families who live there and that's all they can afford. And they're hardworking people. They're taxpayers. Everybody's gone crazy with the rents here in town and it's not sustainable.”
Defending the Wild Orchid and Motels
Across the street from the Vacation Motor Lodge is the Wild Orchid, and its ongoing drama with Reno’s City Council and certain residents over its central location and digital signs.
“I think the City singled out the Wild Orchid to say … this is what's wrong with downtown, but all you have to do is walk through downtown to see what's wrong with downtown. There are closed storefronts on the main strip, boarded up. There's garbage. You can't pick out one thing and say this is what's wrong with the whole area. And honestly we use it as a landmark on the phone when we tell people how to get here. So, I was on the side of the owners of the Wild Orchid the whole time. “
She says Reno has always had an identity crisis. Lumping motels with a certain view of Reno, she finds that offensive.
“I think it's because of a perception that people have, that we're part of that seedy underbelly of society, which isn't true. I think that's a perception that people have, but we contribute to the local economy. We use local tradespeople for help. I think people wish we weren't here, but they don't know what to do with the people that are here. So it's kind of like a guilty relationship. It's not right. Honestly, I think that the word slumlord gets tossed around a lot. And I find that personally offensive because it's so derogatory. I wish they would just come and see and spend maybe 30, 45 minutes, just seeing what's going on here.”
Where would current tenants go if motel rooms were no longer available?
“You know, people say, everybody who lives there, is on drugs. They're all crack heads. And that's just not true. I mean a lot of people get beat up by society. Not everyone can make it. And you end up with $700, $800 a month on Social Security. I mean, what are you supposed to do? And a lot of people here have had rich full lives.”