I left for the brothel after breakfast. The winter morning was cloudy, the diffused light finding patches of ice in the parking lots outside the low-rent casinos and prime rib joints of Reno, Nevada. In the distance, the caps of the Virginia Range were flecked with snow.
My Lyft driver drove east on the interstate, following the Truckee River, with its bands of wild horses, to Storey County, a patch of Nevada desert whose county seat was once famously called “the Richest Place on Earth.” In the late 1850s, miners struck pay dirt here. The Comstock Lode and other bonanzas ignited a boom, fueling opulent hotels, opium dens, saloons, and brothels. A young reporter calling himself Mark Twain complained that there was so much mining under his newspaper’s office that his desk would shake from the explosions.
This article appears in Issue 25 of Alta Journal.
“Money was wonderfully plenty,” Twain wrote about Storey County during his time there. “The trouble was not how to get it,—but how to spend it, how to lavish it, get rid of it, squander it.”
A century and a half later, the wealth has returned. Over the hills and out of sight, multinational corporations that everyone knows—Tesla, Apple, Google, Walmart, and others—have come to this old land of outlaws to build their own boomtown. Instead of hacking out silver and gold, they are building shipping hubs and data centers and state-of-the-art factories. More than 100 companies have taken up residence inside the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRI), a corporate oasis that is roughly 160 square miles and the biggest industrial park in the world, according to its developer.
“Lance is one smart motherfucker,” says Kim Cruz, my Lyft driver, of Lance Gilman, the mastermind behind the industrial park. With his trademark Stetson and salesman smile, Gilman has been the not-so-secret power center in northern Nevada, a one-man mini-government that seems to run local politics, corporate affairs, and other hijinks from the same cell phone. He’s been an elected county commissioner for the past decade, helping to write the regulations and codes for the land his development company owns and conducting business from a trailer behind the Mustang Ranch, the famous brothel he also happens to own, where we have now arrived.
The brothel is only 20 miles from downtown Reno. I cross a parking lot, walk under a neon sign—World Famous Mustang Ranch—and slip into the darkness. A bartender hunches over the ice machine in one corner. The stripper pole and stage in the front are empty. In another corner, a young woman sits reading a paperback in fishnet stockings, furry slippers, and wire-frame glasses that don’t fit right.
At the far end of the barroom, I find the door and cross over into the brothel and its reception area. There’s a roaring fire going, and I can see that the hearth is made of stone. The carpet is plush. The ceilings are high—maybe 20 feet or more—and from the hunter-green walls, the glass eyes of stuffed antelope, bison, and other big game stare down at me.
Gilman waits across the room, in the far seat at a circular table, his round table. I sit down, and he tells me about his inspiration for the space. “We wanted to have that club feel of a British hunting lodge,” he says of the decor. “The animal instinct, that was the theme. The male pursuit of the female is kind of reminiscent of the hunt, isn’t it? All of the endorphins, the physical drama, the flirtation of that dance.”
Behind a wooden bar, rows of top-shelf whiskey bottles rest under dramatic lighting. A leather chesterfield couch is positioned in the center of the room, a tufted perch where clients can relax and choose their women out of lineups. “I wanted to create a really classy thing,” he says. “I felt it would bring more money to the lady. Up the take, if you will.”
He admits the old boys’ club vibe might seem a bit stuffy these days. “Maybe we should do a peace thing, but I wouldn’t know how to do that,” he says.
We are about to have an early lunch, and as we await the other guests, the two people who have been the most pivotal to Gilman’s success as a brothel owner, real estate developer, and elected official, he unfolds a napkin on his lap and shares the big problem on his mind.
“The good old-fashioned money grab,” he says and goes on to outline his current battles and latest enemies. He won’t reveal names, but it’s fair to say they are tax-hungry bureaucrats in the economic development office of Joe Lombardo, the governor of Nevada.
“We knew this day would come,” Gilman says. “There’s just so much money at stake. The first Tesla payment will be $50 million [to Storey County]. And so there’s just others that have decided that this little county doesn’t deserve that.” In the state government, there have been efforts to give the pencil pushers control of TRI’s massive property taxes to spread around (and away from Gilman’s constituents).
The lobbying to keep those tax dollars local has already begun. Gilman’s plan is a charm offensive. He’s been meditating every day, trying to come up with the right words for a personal letter he can hand-deliver to Lombardo. “I don’t want to go in with some kind of a detailed documentary with all kinds of charts and bullshit,” he says. “It needs to say a lot with very few words from the heart.”
Gilman is a big guy, even sitting down. He has bear paws for hands, a honker of a nose, and the build of a middle linebacker (he played football in high school). “My strongest talent was tackling,” he says. “It was so fun to leave [opponents] writhing around on the ground because you hit them so goddamn hard.”
His father played football too. Papa Gilman tried out for the Chicago Bears during the leather-helmet days and used his toughness in law enforcement, patrolling the southern
border on horseback for the federal immigration service. His assignments changed often—El Paso, McAllen, Yuma—and young Lance had little time to make friends. “I had to learn how to be the chameleon,” Gilman says, and master the art of “verbal jujitsu.”
Moving and changing schools frequently, he noticed that the characters he encountered were essentially the same, then as now. “You have the bullies and the philanthropic; you have the lady of the night, the debutante,” he says. “The world is only a block long, and then it repeats itself.”
He could survive anywhere, he felt, and so he did. As Gilman tells it, he left home to water-ski on the shores of Hawaii, rode motorcycles with the Hells Angels, and dropped out of law school to work concert tours with the Beatles, the Who, and Glen Campbell. His stories of late nights and close calls all kind of blend together. “If it sounds like fun, I am going to do it,” he says.
Music. Insurance. Boxing. Roads. Construction. He ran a franchise for a company that sold camper systems; it went bust. He sold luxury yachts and built mansions and shopping malls; he earned his fortune. “Life is just a coat of paint,” Gilman says. “Don’t like the picture you are painting? Change the colors.”
He is easy to spot. His jackets are ostrich-skin; his dusters are boot-length and fringe-laced. The frills on his western shirts flash bright colors and sparkle with rhinestones. On this morning, a quiet Sunday in February, he is dressed like an undertaker: boots, trousers, button-down shirt, and Stetson, all black. His bolo tie is handcrafted from bear claws.
“I love beautiful things,” he says. “I love beautiful women. I love beautiful jewelry.” He collects guns, turquoise, and guitars. He believes in overstimulation. “You want to have beautiful things to look at for your eyes.”
A woman approaches. Her blond hair falls over the tall collar of a white fur coat. She grips a walkie-talkie. She is Jennifer Barnes, the brothel’s primary madam and Gilman’s life partner. She has just emerged from her office, located behind a one-way mirror and next to the brothel’s dungeon, which is filled with BDSM toys. “Would you like a good spanking?” she asks me and unfurls her napkin.
Our first guest for lunch has arrived.
Some love stories in brothels follow a theme, a tale of rescue and betrayal. “He was with another woman,” Barnes says about how she met Gilman.
The tangle of thorns had started growing long before, roughly four decades ago. Gilman was in the midst of a divorce. He had chosen to break up his family, moving to Reno from Coronado, the posh resort town outside San Diego, with his four kids. “Lowest point of my life,” he says. “My moment of failure.”
He found his way to the brothels. There, he fell in love with Susan Austin, a career sex worker. He was in a breakout phase. He was drinking often and riding his Harley and had opened a motorcycle dealership in Carson City. “I made a lot of bikes for a lot of tough guys,” he says.
He also catered to their needs. The Hells Angels were so rowdy, few venues were willing to host their events—including their nuptials. So Gilman built a wedding chapel in the dealership and became an ordained minister through an online program. “It was a marketing play,” he says. “We would have these big, rough motherfuckers come in there, guns and knives hanging out, and I married them. I loved to be able to make them cry.”
About this time, in the late 1980s, Gilman and his long-standing financier and business partner, Don Roger Norman, hit pay dirt. They put together Double Diamond Ranch, an industrial park near Reno, in Washoe County. Despite the usual battles with county officials over building and grading permits, Gilman attracted Lockheed Martin as the anchor tenant. Other missile and defense companies followed.
“We had an incredible cash-on-cash return,” Gilman says, and he and his partner went hunting for more land. There was little undeveloped land left in Reno. They had to look farther out of town, in Storey County. It was a terrible place to develop. The area was rocky, hilly, and dry, and it lacked infrastructure. Gilman and Norman would need to construct roads, run water lines, build a sewage treatment plant, install fiber-optic cables. It would be a massive outlay of resources for Norman.
“We would have to create a mini-city,” Gilman says. But corporate demand was there, and so the Gilman charm machine went into motion. He was able to secure 104,000 acres for Norman, who paid $20 million in cash for the ranch. After closing, they quickly sold a small hunk near the road for $15 million. The tidy transaction drove down the final amount they paid to about $50 an acre, less than a penny per square foot.
The only catch? To develop all that land, Gilman and Norman would need the blessing of local officials in Storey County, which since the heyday of Twain and gold rush miners had been famous for its insularity, lawlessness, and hostility toward outsiders.
“We’re known as renegades,” says Greg “Bum” Hess, now taking his seat at the table.
Our second and final guest for lunch has arrived.
Hess is a former boxer. As a younger man, he fought in Toughman Contests, and he is among the most feared residents in the county. Today he arrives for lunch as if he’s attending a life insurance sales conference. He sports a cream blazer, a dark tie, and a pair of loafers.
“I didn’t even recognize this guy,” Gilman says. “Bum normally is wearing a red sweatshirt and hunting jacket with a hole in it.”
Hess demurs with a grin and rubs his stubbly cheeks. In a way, Gilman’s adventure as owner of the Mustang, his foray into elected office, and his selling TRI land to some of the world’s leading corporations are all Hess’s fault. If not for the bond between them, and their willingness to collaborate on getting regulations and codes passed, Gilman might have been stuck in line like other industrial developers, waiting for years for environmental boards to conduct their studies and sign off on his plans. But unlike the others, Gilman rode his Harley to Virginia City, the Storey County seat, and forged an alliance with Hess, then a county commissioner, and other local officials.
“We started hanging out at the Ponderosa,” Hess says, referring to one of the saloons in town. “We found out that Lance was a very good drinker.”
“You had to drink with them to trust them,” Gilman says of Hess and other local officials. “They wanted to know what you were like when you were at your worst.”
Instead of getting shunned as an outsider, Gilman was embraced. He did all the things many Storey County men liked to do—ride motorcycles, hunt, visit brothels, talk tough. But unlike the local crew of politicos, Gilman was rich. He also had the fat wallet of Norman behind him. Meanwhile, Storey County was going broke. Population was low; spirits were low. Tax revenues were down; services were in disarray. The lone police car in Virginia City was a hand-me-down that had more than 300,000 miles on the odometer and was unable to drive in reverse, says Gilman.
The public school system was the hardest-hit. Budgets were slashed, teachers laid off. To help keep the schools open, Gilman and Norman wrote the county a check for over $360,000. Hess thought the offer was a joke.
“You got to have a catch,” Hess said.
“No, we’ll just figure it out later,” Gilman said. The schools were saved, and he had built an abundance of goodwill.
But the money problems for Storey County lingered. Looking for revenue, Hess considered an old play: promoting brothels, which are legal in the county with a license. Tax revenues from them could be used to plug holes in the county budget. The Mustang Ranch had just closed. Maybe Gilman wanted to buy and run it?
Gilman was not interested. Brothels were booby traps, and he had heard all the horror stories from Austin. “I didn’t want some kind of goddamn business that could take me down behind bars,” Gilman says.
He feared the stigma of it all. His father had been a federal officer. Gilman had four kids, two of them girls. He was also a minister. How could a minister run a house of prostitution?
But after talking it over with Norman, Hess’s proposition made sense to Gilman. Run the brothel their way, use earnings from it to fund infrastructure for TRI, and send tax dollars to Storey County. If they could keep the county operational, they would keep control of their industrial park. They had to stay focused on their long-term play, their mother lode.
To prevent competitors from opening their own bordellos close to TRI, they would relocate the Mustang Ranch near the park. Moving it was anything but a straight shot, though. Gilman purchased the property (including rights to its famous name) in an eBay auction for $145,000. But parts of the building were too awkward to truck from its location five miles away.
“The only way was to find the largest, heaviest lifting helicopter in the world,” Gilman says.
They located a candidate in Russia. Not available. Next was a Chinook used for hauling lumber in the Pacific Northwest. The helicopter wasn’t cheap—$25,000 an hour—but it did the job. The tab to move, renovate, and open the doors to the new Mustang ballooned to around $14 million.
Once the red light was on, management of the enterprise proved to be another challenge. “This is a business that needs to be run by women, for women,” Gilman says.
He appointed Austin, his then–romantic partner, the madam and general manager. She hired Barnes as a cashier and then promoted her to an executive assistant. Barnes started managing Gilman’s schedule, and they got to know each other. She was born and raised in Storey County.
“I was a working lady here at the Mustang,” she says. She recalled Gilman’s appearances on local television, the guy who had saved northern Nevada. “He was a power player,” she says. “That was really sexy.”
It was only a matter of time before Austin and Gilman parted ways. Austin was out as madam. Barnes was in.
“We had really good chemistry,” she says.
They’ve been together ever since.
Time for lunch. Jeff Probus, the Mustang’s chef, emerges from the kitchen with a notepad, ready to take our orders.
“I owe much of my worldly success to this man,” Gilman says, describing the cooking that goes into feeding the brothel staff (over 400 women rotate in throughout the year, in two-week shifts), preparing special meals for VIP customers, and putting together one-off corporate luncheons.
“Jeff, you helped me with the Tesla deal,” Gilman goes on, trying to recall the entrée that was served to the Tesla site committee.
“Beef Wellington,” Probus says.
“Kevin Kassekert loves that,” Gilman says, referring to the now-former Tesla exec who led the Gigafactory search team and recommended to Elon Musk that the company build a factory here. (A representative for Redwood Materials, where Kassekert now serves as chief operating officer, did not respond to requests for comment.)
The TRI-Tesla relationship started with an innocent phone call. Tina Iftiger, then vice president of economic development at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, got a tip that Tesla representatives were in Las Vegas looking for land to develop and didn’t like what they saw. Iftiger thought it was worth a shot to bring them north.
“Are you working with Tesla?” she asked Gilman.
“Who is Tesla?” he replied. Gilman had been trapped in Storey County pitching TRI plots to buyers. But he saw that for the industrial park to be irresistible to Big Tech, he would need to fast-track the development of roads and other infrastructure. And this would require cutting red tape to create a pro-development environment. As Gilman saw it, the desired outcome could not be achieved with lobbyists or public relations agencies. He had to do it himself. Fortunately, he was already on the inside.
One year before the call from Iftiger, Gilman had announced his campaign for public office. He started knocking on doors, leaving behind pouches of rock-shaped candy
that looked like silver, a harbinger of the prosperity he promised to return to the Richest Place on Earth—if elected a county commissioner. Not everyone bought it.
“I got thrown off a few porches,” he says.
He upped the charisma and swagger. A barbecue trailer was built, and Chef Probus was deployed to parks and basketball games to win votes with tasty spare ribs and chicken wings. Parties were thrown, including a big New Year’s shindig.
In the fall of 2012, Gilman won his commissioner seat easily. He then maneuvered himself into seats on the county’s water and sewer board and the V&T Railway Commission and became the region’s representative for two economic development authorities. He was in a position from which he could push through a novel financing arrangement—instead of working with a bank, TRI would borrow from the county.
Norman would front Storey County $50 million or so to help build infrastructure for TRI, and the county would pay back the amount, interest-free, from the future taxes levied on companies that came to the industrial park. “That was the holy grail,” Gilman says of the unprecedented terms he and other county officials negotiated.
As a commissioner, Gilman also helped write a slew of regulatory changes that benefited TRI. “There is no planning commission to go through,” he says. “[We] guarantee grading permits in 7 days and building permits in 30 days. That is unheard of. And we will also permit incrementally so you don’t have to have final plans. We can do it chunk by chunk.”
Gilman eventually connected with Tesla’s Kassekert and learned that the carmaker had still not found a suitable site in Las Vegas. He sent a chartered jet to bring the exec north for a visit. The jet waited for the Tesla team on the tarmac, but they did not show. The jet returned without them.
“Their corporate lawyer determined they could not accept a ride on a private jet,” Gilman says. “I was like, another $10K down the drain!”
But shortly after, Tesla came to northern Nevada, with a 15-minute slot for Gilman and his team to make their pitch.
“Shit, I can’t even introduce myself in 15 minutes,” Gilman said, recalling the initial meeting with the electric car execs and his fellow county officials all huddled over a large table in his construction trailer. Gilman asked the Tesla team what their pain point was.
“We’re worried about scheduling risk,” Kassekert said.
Gilman had never heard the term.
“Well, how fast can we get a grading permit?” the auto exec explained.
Gilman turned to Dean Haymore, then director of the county building department. Haymore opened a folder and slid a piece of paper across the table. It had already been filled out to Tesla Motors Inc.
“Kevin, this is your permit,” Haymore said. “If you have got your grading plans with you, I can mark them up now. And if you have got a shovel in your trunk, we can start moving dirt by sundown.”
Recounting the tale, Gilman flushes with pride. The pre-filled-out form. The can-do attitude. This was his best salesmanship, his finest 15 minutes.
It’s time for a tour. Our plates of grilled salmon and asparagus tips are licked clean. I fold my napkin and am led to a nearby construction trailer, where I meet Kris Thompson, a former president of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial General Improvement District board and Gilman’s project manager. Thompson is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a former practicing attorney, and his trailer is adorned with leather club chairs, a desk, and a massive .50-caliber machine gun supported by a tripod atop a cabinet. Its belted ammo—bullets the size of cigars—is stored on a bookshelf above it. It’s man cave meets executive office. He shows me maps of the park, all the blue-chippers nestled together like a corporate kibbutz, and then grabs the keys to Gilman’s late-model pickup.
We pull over the first hill, up the access road, and into the park. There is no welcome sign I can see, no triumphal arch, no flashing lights to greet us. There are only hills and rocks and wild horses. The mustangs.
“They are an emblem,” Thompson says of the feral-horse bands. “They show we are not three-piece-suit-wearing bureaucrats out here.”
We pass a row of chain-link fences surrounding a NASA-looking dish. “This is a satellite communication node,” he says. “It’s very hush-hush. We’re not sure who it is. We suspect it might be Tesla.”
We head over the bluff. A valley of black reflectors shimmers in the distance. “That’s Apple’s data center and their solar field,” Thompson says.
Soon, the big boxes emerge. “There’s Thrive Market,” he says. “It’s Whole Foods meets Amazon.”
“Here is PetSmart,” he says. “As I understand, they have the biggest aquarium in the western U.S. They quarantine all the fish from Asia.”
Next are parking lots with cargo trucks, endless rows of trucks. “This is Walmart,” he says. “They do 3,000 trucks a day in and out of that facility.”
The biggest landowner in the park is Blockchain, a cryptocurrency company whose founder had envisioned a “smart city” out here, a utopian metropolis propelled by tech.
“This is all the Milkens’,” Thompson says, pointing to an undeveloped patch of land that is owned by junk bond king Michael Milken and his family.
We pull up a dirt road and park on the top of a hill. “Turn your phone off,” he says. “This area is secretive.”
I get out and follow Thompson to see the view. We take a peek at Switch, a data-storage service, whose loading docks are spread out below us. Some of the roofs are red; the building is massive. I see no people.
“It’s secure like Fort Knox,” he says. “They hire Rangers and SEALs to do their security. They’ve got ground security, video, heat sensors, motion sensors. I think they have Department of Defense servers.”
Inside, servers also hold the intel for companies like eBay, FedEx, REI, and PlayStation. Among these hills, construction has begun on numerous new facilities; parcels comprising more than 20 million square feet either are being built out or are in permitting. As I gaze around at this contradictory landscape of desert and industry, the air cool and blowing just so, I find it to be lonely and foreboding. It’s as if the ghosts of Storey County have returned, but instead of hacking out silver and gold with pickaxes, the new barons are simply mining the new currency: gigabytes and Bitcoins. So long as there is power to run the servers and supercomputers, and a safe place to store it all, their cyber-fortunes might never run dry.
I turn to share this with Thompson, but he cuts me off. This has been Gilman and his development team’s plan all along.
“This is the new Comstock Lode,” Thompson says.
The snow is falling again, and there is talk of closing the pass to Virginia City. On the morning after my visit to TRI, Gilman has a public meeting at the courthouse, a gathering of local officials. But he’s a no-show, in person at least. The fire chief and others give their reports, and I spot Gilman’s Stetson on a monitor in the far corner, a lone pane on a Zoom call, following the proceedings from afar.
I leave the courthouse and walk through the old mining town, many of its buildings crooked and in disrepair. In the flurries, I head down C Street, the main drag, striding along the wooden Boardwalk, as the walkway is called.
I duck into the Ponderosa, the saloon where Gilman and Hess hatched their plans, and start asking around about the pair. While sipping a coffee and playing a slot machine, one local spares no profanities. Gilman is no different from any other ambitious developer who abused his public office to make a buck for himself and his partners, the man tells me. How could it be, he asks, that the wealthiest companies in the world have all moved to Storey County, yet the quality of life here hasn’t gotten any better?
Alexia Sober, who runs the Canvas Cafe, down the street, and is active in community affairs, also believes it’s not fair that the Big Tech blue-chippers get all the attention and the tax breaks.
“Outside, I got a broken sidewalk. Think anyone is going to fix that?” she says. “We’ve been caretakers of this community. There’s no abatement for the businesses that have been here.”
She is looking forward to the end of Gilman’s tenure, partly because of how he has gone after his enemies. During a reelection bid, a local blogger named Sam Toll started taking jabs at Gilman, roasting him in posts as “Glance ‘The Thrill’ Thrillman,” doubting his fitness for office, and evoking Twain, the satiric ghost of Virginia City’s past.
Gilman declared war.
“There is such a thing in my cowboy world as beyond the pale,” he said at the time. “When you cross that imaginary line, then you ought to be called for the reckoning.”
Gilman rounded up his lawyers and sued Toll for libel, and kept on suing him. It was an ill-fated attack and cost Gilman dearly. The legal tussle turned Toll into a hero among free speech advocates.
“The fragile ego,” Toll now says, confused as to why a honcho like Gilman with so much local power would go so far. Toll can’t reveal his settlement amount, but says the figure was big enough to “put a smile on my face and make me sit crooked because my wallet is thick.”
Given his charisma and talent for making alliances, others wonder why Gilman would adopt a take-no-prisoners approach. “He’s a lost soul,” says Gerald Antinoro, the former sheriff of Storey County, now in retirement. Antinoro calls his tenure as the top cop a “living hell” because he refused to look the other way on infractions at the Mustang. Gilman and his political cronies financed campaigns against him.
Despite Gilman’s efforts to undermine him, Antinoro confesses his awe at how Gilman and Norman clawed their way into positions of power to engineer the deals that allowed them to finance a corporate oasis, and on such an undesirable chunk of land, and then sell off every parcel to the world’s leading companies. It’s a baffling feat to the former sheriff, a Twain-like story, given that fortunes were forged over tequila and hot dogs at the Ponderosa Saloon.
“What is going on here?” Antinoro asks. “Is this a place full of buffoons? Or is it some of the sharpest wheeler-dealers and farsighted individuals that were ever collected together?”
Gilman’s final term is up next year. He talks about retiring to a home he fixed up along Florida’s Miami River—he and Barnes spend much of the year there—and fading into the sunset. But even as he pushes 80 and looks to preserve his legacy, there is still much to do, still a lot that can go wrong. He needs to convince Governor Lombardo and others to keep TRI’s tax dollars in Storey County. And to keep his foot in politics, he might also try pushing his son Donny Gilman into his seat. But these tasks may pale in comparison with the new deal he has brewing, which he says will be his biggest yet.
Naturally, he can’t disclose much. It’s a South African company, privately held. He’s out of space in TRI, so he and Norman have secured a few thousand acres for the company in TRI-II, their latest project. Their new industrial park is in Fernley, in neighboring Lyon County, only a short drive from the Mustang Ranch.
“This next round is going to eclipse Tesla and everything else,” Gilman says, claiming that the South African company wants to invest $50 billion in northern Nevada, nearly 15 times the amount Tesla has thus far put in. The figure is staggering, particularly because the area was just scrub brush a decade ago, the headquarters of the developer is in a trailer behind a brothel, and the only way to get a deal like this done is to go and give Gilman’s bear-paw hand a shake.
“Live and let live,” he says. “It’s the western way.”•