Not content to be a drive-through town, Tonopah is leading the charge of change.
BY MEGG MUELLER
In a 1975 story about Tonopah in Nevada Magazine, the writer spent a great deal of space discussing how favorable Tonopah’s climate is for those suffering from various conditions, such as bronchitis, arthritis, rheumatism, and the like. The more than 6,000-foot elevation and the nearly constant dry winds were said to be cures for many an ailment and the reason many people moved to the town. Along with other descriptions that contained no superlatives, the gritty account of life in Tonopah was said to “grow on you.” The title of the story echoed the writer’s marvel at the town’s very existence: “Tonopah Today: The town that wouldn’t die.”
Tonopah die? Think again. Tonopah has reinvented itself numerous times, some might say just for the fun of it and because it could. But whatever you say, this is the truth about Tonopah today: It is in the middle of everywhere.
FLIP THE SCRIPT
Many towns in Nevada are pegged as being in the middle of nowhere. But Tonopah is turning that idea on its head. As the halfway point between the state’s two largest population centers and the county seat of massive Nye County, Tonopah may seem remote, but its central location is perfect for those who live there.
“Tonopah is the Paris of central Nevada,” remarks Jordan Dillard, a civil engineer working in Tonopah.
Jordan’s comparison isn’t so far fetched as it may seem; the town’s blinding lights come from the heavens, where the stars are free to shine without being overshadowed; impressive structures are not quite as renowned as the Eiffel Tower, but are no less historically romantic; and its denizens are equally fierce when discussing their hometown pride.
“I want people to say ‘This is Tonopah’ in a positive way, not a resigned way,” Bruce Jabbour says.
Bruce is the senior vice president of operations for North Tonopah Development (NTD) and Tonopah Hospitality Services. He’s been in and out of Tonopah for years, working for the Mizpah when it opened and is now back seeing to a host of projects coming to town. His pride in his adopted hometown is infectious, and it’s a message he spreads to everyone he meets, which is quite a lot of people.
As the onsite manager/host/jack-of-all-trades for NTD’s American Quality Suites property, he’s keeping busy. One of the first signs of life when you’re driving south into Tonopah, the property consists of 20 rental units, a hotel, and 25 RV sites.
Many of the units rent to the cadre of temporary workers that come to town for various projects (SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes solar energy project is the latest big construction event in the area), but recently Bruce opened up two of the units on Airbnb. The units offer two separate bedrooms, plus a shared kitchen, living space, and bathroom, making them perfect for families and couples traveling together who need a little more than a hotel room. While Tonopah currently has about 300 hotel rooms according to Bruce, the near future will bring a host of new properties online. The Sundowner Motel sits at the south end of town and has been closed for more than a decade, but is currently being renovated and will open soon as a major branded hotel, Bruce says. It’s not one of the properties he works for, but he’s happy to report this as it’s all good news for the town.
Bruce’s company is working on a much-needed five-acre travel plaza and bringing a brand new Holiday Inn Express to town. The travel plaza will be a boon to the truck traffic that passes through town each day—the Nevada Department of Transportation estimates about 5,000 vehicles travel U.S. Route 95 through Tonopah each day—and the hotel will be a major draw for tourists. NTD hopes to break ground on both projects this year.
MIXING THE OLD WITH THE NEW
On the flip side of the new development slated for the north end of town, the middle of the historic district is continuing its own revitalization. The renovation and reopening of the Mizpah Hotel in 2011 was the spark that continues to light Tonopah’s fire today. The venerable queen of Tonopah, the Mizpah came back to sumptuous life under the guiding hands of owners Fred and Nancy Cline. Their son Ramsey has breathed life into the Mizpah Club Casino, adjacent to the hotel. Open just two years now, the Mizpah Club has the town’s first gaming ticket system, live music regularly, a café with the coolest hotel key collection possibly anywhere, and the upgrades and additions continue.
The space had many uses over the years, but it wasn’t until the Cline touch was put on it that it became an enhancement to downtown, instead of an eyesore.
“Downtown had so many buildings shuttered,” Ramsey says. “It was just a shame it hadn’t been kept in better condition.”
The success of Tonopah has become very personal for Nancy, Fred, and Ramsey. California natives, the Clines have deep ties to central Nevada as Nancy’s family hails from the area. Her uncle was a prospector who came to town in 1900 and owned a saloon, while her grandmother was the postmistress of Goldfield. Along with the Mizpah Hotel, the Clines also built the Tonopah Brewing Co., which is so tasty it practically demands that craft beer and barbecue fans lengthen their stay in town so they can have at least two meals there.
“Tonopah literally represents an opportunity for us to honor our heritage, as well as the heritage of Nevada. I have learned so much about the tenacity and perseverance of the generation that came west in search of gold and a better life. I have learned how motivated they were, and how they tolerated and eventually conquered the hardships of the desert, and the hardships of the culture,” Nancy says.
Ramsey now lives in town, and is the inspiration behind the new hostel Fred and Nancy opened this year, which they hope will cater to the town’s younger, European visitors. He helms the casino, and is helping his parents on their newest endeavor: remodeling the Belvada.
BRINGING BACK THE BELVADA
Built in 1906, just a year before the Mizpah which sits kitty-corner along Main Street, the Belvada began life as a bank, housed a saloon, other banks, and more in the seven decades it was open. It’s been closed a long time, but that doesn’t deter Nancy.
“Tonopah is a living memorial to man’s ability to better himself in the face of the unknown,” she says. “It has been such an honor to restore the incredibly retro basement that comes with glass panels in the sidewalk for lighting and a funky entrance descending from the street-level doors. According to Ramsey, Nancy would like to see something like a coffee shop or bakery in the main retail area, but they would love to have someone else run such a business.
While the structures may be permanent, they do require maintenance and the renovation of the Belvada is no small task. The building houses what is claimed as the first elevator in Nevada, and after a couple decades lying dormant, the cadre of workmen pounding nails, laying wire, and fixing pipe have their work cut out for them if they hope to get the property open next year, as Ramsey optimistically estimates.
The property is set to house hotel rooms, retail space, museum exhibits, and perhaps even a speakeasy-type lounge in the incredibly retro basement that comes with glass panels in the sidewalk for lighting and a funky entrance descending from the street-level doors. According to Ramsey, Nancy would like to see something like a coffee shop or bakery in the main retail area, but they would love to have someone else run such a business.
“Ideally she’d like to rent it out because things do better when you’re trying to look out for your own business,” Ramsey explains. “When you’re trying to run 30 different businesses that aren’t necessarily related, the end product isn’t as good.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE, OR A TOWN
One of the hoped-for effects of revitalization is increased visitors, but less obvious is the idea that it will encourage others to join the effort to breathe new life into Tonopah. Empty storefronts still exist in town, and the Clines and Bruce would all like to see that change. But how do you entice someone to open a new business? And how do you further entice people to not only open a business but perhaps move to Tonopah to do so? In the case of Marc and Tiffany Grigory, it was love at first sight.
The couple lived in Las Vegas until a few years ago, working in the hospitality industry, and barely even knew about Tonopah. With the couple’s first child just a year old, and a second on the way, Marc saw an ad on Craigslist for an old bar in Tonopah, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. A few sleepless nights filled with research about the building and the town, he told Tiffany he wanted to take a look. She laughs as she remembers her very-pregnant response to him, but agreed to take a look.
“We lied to everyone,” she says with a smile. “We didn’t tell anyone we were driving to Tonopah to look at a bar built in 1905 that we might buy. So we met the owner, and after looking around and touring the building, we went back out to our car and we both had tears in our eyes. That was it.”
It’s been three years since they became the owners of the Tonopah Liquor Company, and while moving from Las Vegas to Tonopah required some adjustments, they couldn’t be happier. The couple felt welcomed from the beginning, and the town came out in force on the bar’s opening night.
“They (the people in Tonopah) love their town, and they were so happy we wanted to be here,” Tiffany says.
Marc agrees. “It’s a small town, so it’s different for sure. People here know everything about what you do, but it feels like family,” he says. “People here are so real. Whether you like them or not, they are who they are. Unapologetically, they are who they are. And there’s something so refreshing about that. In the long run, you love them for it.”
Ramsey echos a similar thought when asked about the response he’s gotten from the changes he and his family have made around town.
“You might have a few people who think change is bad, but lots of people come up to me and tell me it’s looking really great. The community does respond positively,” he says.
Ramsey agrees Marc and Tiffany are a great asset. The Tonopah Liquor Company, or TLC as it’s affectionately known by anyone who visits even once, has been around from the beginning and while it’s seen its share of lean years and neglect, today it’s an enticing blend of history and modern influences in a relaxed, inviting setting that anyone would be comfortable visiting. The couple has upped the libation game in town, also, with more than 100 whiskeys to choose from, thanks to Marc’s impressive penchant for the liquor. They even renovated the upstairs quarters, creating beautiful rooms named for the ladies of the evening that once used the building to entertain the town’s miners and prospectors. The Grigorys thought they might live in these rooms, which have a beautiful, modern shared kitchen and living space, but are currently working on how they can offer them to visitors.
“It’s really exciting. We’re so happy to have them up here,” Ramsey says. “They take their business very seriously and put a lot of effort into it.”
“I think there is some trickle down effect to the renovations,” he continues, “but I think there are still folks that are holding back. Hopefully as the economy keeps improving, people are tempted to open up new shops and businesses.” “We didn’t come here to change anything,” Bruce adds. “We came here to add to the town. Something as simple as adding landscaping sends a message to tourists that it’s a cool place, and whether they stay with us or not, it gives them a good feeling about the town.”
Tonopah deserves that good feeling, if not only for what its residents are doing today, but for all the town has meant to its residents in the past.
“I have a quote from my great uncle Harry Ramsey who wrote, ‘I can make my future and provide for my family from the depths and the bounty of the land. I will find enough gold to offer my future wife the quality of life she deserves,’” Nancy says.
“It was a time when that challenge was embraced, and Tonopah to us represents that last frontier. We honor the simplicity of yesterday by restoring a town that epitomizes all the qualities, both bad and good, that made it possible for thousands of pioneers to dream and succeed in making a better life for themselves.”
Her sentiments are exactly why Tonopah should never be called a town in the middle of nowhere. It is a town in the middle of everywhere.