PAST the neon lights of Reno and the cookie-cutter homes of neighbouring Sparks, the I-80 highway winds through a thinly populated expanse of arid hills and lunar valleys in Storey County. On one side of the road flows the Truckee River; on the other bands of wild horses forage for parched grass. Signs of civilisation are restricted to electricity pylons and the odd rundown farmhouse. The Wild Horse Saloon, a dark and smoky room connected to a legal brothel, is the only sit-down restaurant for miles. It is not an area that immediately seems conducive to hosting a business park. Yet Storey County in Nevada is home to the world’s largest by some measures: the Reno Tahoe Industrial Centre (TRI). The park spans 104,000 acres in total—three times the size of San Francisco.
Near its eastern border hulks Tesla’s “gigafactory”, a gargantuan white structure where the company hopes to produce batteries for 500,000 electric cars a year. It already has nearly 5m square feet of operational space; when complete, the firm’s founder, Elon Musk, expects it to be the world’s largest building. In February 2017 Switch, a provider of data centres, opened the biggest in existence on its “Citadel Campus” in TRI. A few months later, Google snapped up 1,210 acres of land—enough to fit nearly 100 American football pitches. One executive whose company owns land in the park muses that no other bit of industrial America has a higher level of investment per square foot.
Demand for industrial property is rising nationally thanks to the strength of the economy and the boom in e-commerce. Long the ugly duckling of commercial property, warehouses and distribution centres are now emerging as “beautiful swans”, according to a recent report by Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a commercial real-estate firm. The proportion of industrial property in America that is vacant has plunged from 10.2% at the start of 2010 to an all-time low of 5% at the end of 2017, notes Craig Meyer of JLL. Almost all new space is being built in parks that are pre-planned and pre-zoned, he says. Companies can get up and running quickly—standalone sites are rare. One of TRI’s anchor tenants calls TRI an “industrial wonderland” for the speed at which firms can move.
Yet the park might have served a rather different purpose. Along with a partner, Lance Gilman, an affable businessman whose uniform consists of cowboy hats, crocodile-skin boots and turquoise jewellery, purchased the land that now forms the TRI for $20m from Gulf Oil in 1998. The oil company had planned to stuff it with big game and use it as a luxury hunting reserve before the price of oil plummeted and such indulgences were judged inappropriate. Mr Gilman’s idea was to pre-approve the land for industrial uses and sell tracts of it to firms wishing to build swiftly.
He recalls looking out at the park after the purchase, and thinking that it would take three generations to sell it all. He sold plots to small firms and some big ones, like Walmart, but during the Great Recession of 2007-09 sales dropped precipitously. During the lean years TRI relied in part on cash from another of Mr Gilman’s businesses: the brothel, called Mustang Ranch, that houses the Wild Horse Saloon. “Without Mustang Ranch, there might not be TRI,” Mr Gilman says from a red, faux crocodile-skin chair in an office at the bordello.
Things turned around in 2013. Representatives from Tesla flew in for a meeting. They had been scouring the country for a site for their battery plant but had not found anywhere that would allow them to build fast enough. How long would it take to get a grading permit (required when topography is significantly altered), they asked? In jest, Storey County’s community development director pushed a permit across the table and told the visitors to fill it out. The reality was not much slower: Tesla got its permit within a few days.
That initial deal raised TRI’s profile. Switch, Google and eBay soon followed. Not long afterwards Mr Gilman began receiving cheques from companies wanting to buy land in the park without even touring it. They are often technology firms; a quarter of leasing demand for American industrial space comes from e-commerce companies wanting to expand operations. In January a firm deploying blockchain technology purchased 67,125 acres of TRI land. Out of the 104,000 acres, only a few hundred acres are still available. Gazing out at a cluster of busy warehouses from a hilltop in the park, Mr Gilman chuckles: “I guess I sold myself out of a job.”