A steam engine leaves the outskirts of Carson City. Some 150 years ago it carried vast silver riches, but today it’s rich only in history and it delivers tourists to Virginia City.
Walking among century-old twisted tall shops that teeter on a hillside... gun fights reenact the long-gone Virginia City mining days that Mark Twain saw: “A ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction,” he wrote.
Tourists pack the steam engine-powered train to get to Virginia City. (Ky Plaskon/Capital Public Radio)
Behind the entertaining scenes here, residents like Beth Day say they are haunted by something else.
"A lot of the businesses, some of them are closing, you will see a few empty ones. A friend of mine owned two of the shops and she had to close one. Not enough, you know, tourists to keep her open." - Beth Day, Virginia City
Next to one of those closed stores is Judy Cohen’s Silver Stope gift shop. "Traditionally all the stores did well as a whole, but now, the last few years its been food, liquor and candy," Cohen says.
The Virginia City Cemetery. (Ky Plaskon/Capital Public Radio)
She says she is struggling because events that the town puts on have changed the customer base, from tourists interested in history, to more locals interested in a good time who go to bars instead of gift shops.
The Outhouse Race is one of many special events to attact tourists. (Ky Plaskon/Capital Public Radio)
The town features events like outhouse and camel races, cannon shooting, chili cook-offs and fried bull testicle tasting. The Virginia City Tourism Commission uses $350,000, including room and sales taxes to pay for the parties.
Cohen is asking for a more detailed account of how the money is spent:
"And then when you see people wasting the money that you worked so hard seven days a week on your feet all day long, had never done this before. I said, you people come in here and try to sell. You try, you walk in my shoes for a week." - Judy Cohen, Silver Stope, Virginia City
In response in part to complaints from business owners, the county took over accounting from the Tourisim Commission. What they found was well. . . "old-fashioned, archaic," according to County Manager Pat Whitten.
Whitten took over the commissions payroll, human resources and accounting. The old-fashioned book keeping made it hard to evaluate spending.
"It was difficult to get answers, they would come out in an odd format. Instead of using standardize accounting to give you profit and loss statements or financial statements or anything like that, it was a lot more difficult process. But I would, I would stand firm that we have never had any reason to suspect any mismanagement or misappropriation of funds." - Pat Whitten, County Manager
From the banjo player at the outhouse races to commission salaries, none of it was outlined in last years budget. Archaic accounting was used on eight events, reporting no expense or revenue last year.
But Whitten says that is about to change. Transparency isn’t the only 21st-century effort by this Civil-war-era town. It’s investing in social media and, in a new event this month it joined the zombie trend.
Zombies run wild in Virginia City. (Ky Plaskon/Capital Public Radio)
People in zombie outfits chased drunk runners and main street was a dance party.
Because the events are paid for with sales tax revenue, by state law, the county can’t oversee approval of the events. So the Virginia City Tourism Commission can market the old ghost town any way it chooses.
Tourism Director Denny Dotoson has a loud and clear message for event promoters.
“We will close streets for you, we will give you a big venue. It will cost you 25 bucks. All we ask in return is that you advertise and market the town and you bring folks. If you fill our town we will give you our town for free basically.” - Denny Dotoso, Tourism Director
Dotson says he’d be happy just to break even, but for now next years budget reports the commission will be $96,000 in the red, bleeding money to keep Virginia City alive.