Lights, Signs, Action: Illuminating the Biggest Little City

A company with 100 year old roots in Northern Nevada has created some of the city’s most iconic features. From each version of the Reno Arch to the newest Neon Line District on West Fourth Street, YESCO has been a part of the journey since 1920.

The most current version of the Reno Arch, completed in 2018. Photo provided by: The Next Trip

Over 100 years of Neon Signs: The History of YESCO

Chances are you’ve come across a YESCO sign at some point in your life. YESCO stands for Young Electric Sign Company, a generation-based company started in 1920 by Thomas Young. Young was an immigrant from Sunderland, England and when the family moved to America, they settled in Ogden, Utah. After receiving a loan from his father he started what was then called, Thomas Young Signs. This company was not what YESCO is today, specializing in coffin plates, hand lettering, and show cards. The late 1920’s is when YESCO started to become what it is today after Thomas Young got his license in neon and was putting up neon signs throughout the West. The railroad can be attributed to YESCO’s deep roots in Northern Nevada.

Jeff Young, Thomas Young’s grandson and current co-owner, chief marketing officer, and executive vice president of YESCO signs. Photo provided by CBS

“We know he was in Reno and the reason we know he was in Reno was because his father, George Young, worked in the roundhouse in Sparks,” Jeff Young, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, explains. “My grandfather was traveling in and out of Reno and rural Nevada in the 30’s and bumped into someone traveling in and out from Northern California. When they announced they were building the Hoover Dam, my grandfather, on a handshake, agreed to work in Southern Nevada while the other person maintained their own business in Northern Nevada.”

Thirty years pass and that Northern Nevada company is long gone. The company running the Northern Nevada area is acquired by Thomas Young Signs and the handshake deal is terminated and Thomas Young Signs starts business back up in the Reno and Tahoe area and the rest was history.

Now in its fourth generation, 85 offices across the United States, and over a century in business, the company has lit the way for the signage and lighting industry. The company is currently headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah with offices across the United States. The executive vice president and chief marketing officer is Thomas Young’s grandson, Jeff Young. Six young family members are trustees and functionally control the business.

YESCO in the BLC: From the Gold Rush to Present Day

“We’ve been in Reno ever since,” Young says. “The sign that everyone talks about the most, is the Reno Arch.”

The arch sign has had its fair share of versions and renovations. YESCO, in one way or another, has virtually been involved in every version of the arch, including the most recent.The most recent version that can be seen today in downtown Reno on Virginia Street was completed four years ago.

“The reason that event is of particular interest to our company is because my father fell gravely ill and ended up at Saint Mary’s hospital,” Young explains. “He was in ICU and my mom moved into the Circus Circus hotel while he was rehabilitating in Reno for a couple months.”

The first edition of the Reno Arch was created in 1926. It is the only version of the arch that doesn’t include “Biggest Little City.” Photo provided online by the Property of Special Collections Dept., University of Nevada, Reno library

Carson City and the Gold Rush really put Reno on the map for YESCO. Nevada’s capital as a passageway for the Gold Rush trumped Las Vegas in population.

“We looked at Reno and its importance as the Crossroads of the west and having lived there, I have deep and abiding appreciation for the community, the area, and the people,” Young says. “My great grandfather spent the last days of his career working in that roundhouse. We were blessed with the great work ethic and showed us the way and how to care for our customers and because of that, we are deeply invested in Northern Nevada, and particularly the Reno area.”

YESCO’s involvement in Reno can be attributed to the railroad and Thomas Young, but what keeps YESCO involved today are the loyal customers.

“One great relationship is the Atlantis Casino,” Young says. “John Farahi [CEO of Monarch Casino and Resort, Inc.] has been a committed customer for as long as I’ve known him. He was buying signs from us then and he’s buying signs from us now for a confidential upcoming project.”

Maintaining signs remotely, over 10 hours away, isn’t easy. YESCO prioritizes its customers first so the company makes sure to see every one of their signs in the Reno Sparks area, at least twice a month. To do this, they have patrollers out at night who inspect the signs and if something is wrong they send a picture back to the database to get the problem resolved as soon as possible.

“As time has gone by, it’s hard to imagine a hotel we haven’t done something for some point in time in Reno, however, we did not build the Circus Circus clown originally, but we had done regular work at Circus,” Young says. “The question is what haven’t we worked on at some point in time, so you’d be hard pressed to find a project we haven’t been involved with at any point in time.”

YESCO’s most recent involvement in Reno is the Neon Light District, hired on by Jacobs Entertainment. The goal of the project is to preserve and protect signage from Reno’s historic West Fourth Street near the Sands Regency. The district features nine signs designed and fabricated to look like the originals in a tribute to Reno’s history. The nine signs include Nevada U.S. 40, Ramos Drugs Co., Donner Inn, Harold’s Club, Stag Inn, The Downtown Bowl, El Ray Motel, The Gold Room, and City Center Motel. All have a special piece in Reno’s history and existence today and the direction and future of Reno.

“The customer is actively designing new projects with us and we are actively pursuing the opportunity to build them,” Young says.

Picture representation of the Neon Line District. The real-life version was brought to life in 2021. Photo provided by Jeff Young.

Let’s Get Down to Business: The Value of a One-of-a-Kind Sign

It’s not all glitz, glam, and neon lights in the sign industry. There is an entire business aspect to designing and displaying signs. This includes possibly redesigning what a company has in mind, checking city codes, requirements, and restrictions.

“When a customer approaches us, we are usually ready waiting with an opportunity to design something,” Young says. “A customer will have a basic idea with a logo, but the logo might not have the characteristics to make a good sign. There’s a huge transition between graphics and an actual sign design. It’s 3-dimensional, often 2-sided, and lines of sight are very important. Every place has different requirements with restrictions, height, square-footage, setback, curfews, light restrictions meaning the electronic portion of the sign has to dim down at night.”

Once the codes are checked and inspected, designers come into play and go to work designing a sign for the customer. Commonly, the first draft is not the final draft. There are several revisions worked out between YESCO and the customer to make sure the customers needs are met, while also complying with codes and restrictions.

As star-studded as the signs that line the Las Vegas Strip, YESCO also creates the less glamorous signs for companies. Although these aren’t the iconic signs being covered by the news or talked about on the street, it creates a lot of product diversity for the company.

“From the huge, giant LED signs and systems, we are commonly hired to go into hospitals and on campus to do the directionals such as janitorial closets, classroom signs, and the entire interior package in an institution and even some casinos,” Young says. “Our product mix is very, very diverse and once the design is done, our fabricators are very unique.”

Young makes the contrast to the automotive industry where a factory makes 10,000 versions of the same car, with minor variations, the signage industry is completely the opposite.

“We are a custom shop which means the signs you see are unique and we might build something similar to that but the likelihood is we’ll never build something exactly like that ever again,” Young says. “When you talk about something being custom, it provides a whole range of complexities that most production houses don’t see. In many cases, the mass production shops who have economies of scope and scale, we are the antithesis of that. We are asking for all sorts of challenges because these signs are all one of a kind.”

Reno is one of YESCO’s 40 locations in the West. YESCO has branched out of its normal territory opening 80 service offices east of Colorado and even up into Canada. Service offices are independent franchise businesses who operate under YESCO. YESCO does the marketing in exchange for a portion of its revenue as a franchise fee. YESCO has spread across North America with over 1,500 employees.

“The sign is the crowning jewel and the finalization,” Young describes after flipping the switch of a sign at the turn-on event at the opening of the Gila River Resort and Casino in Phoenix. “It’s their image, their reputation, and a lot is wrapped up in there.” Young quoted Rob McCoy of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas who said, “It’s interesting that we implode our buildings in Nevada, but we keep the signs.”

The legacy of some YESCO signs can be found in the Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum, including the most recent addition, the 80-foot Hard Rock guitar, and the first of all the worldwide Hard Rock guitars.​​

YESCO’s most iconic sign outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo online from YESCO website

And the List Goes on… Iconic Signs

A top of the list is probably the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, followed by several other Las Vegas hotels and casinos. YESCO created the Aria sign standing at 170 feet tall and 70 feet wide, the Harmon sign at 65 feet high and 310 feet wide, which has gone down as their most challenging assignment. Other YESCO signs illuminating the Vegas strip include the Wynn, Palms, New York-New York, and Caesars. Wendover Will in Wendover, Nevada, made the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s Largest Mechanical Cowboy. Will is a YESCO design, and actually designed by a self-taught engineer back in the 50’s. His cousin, Vegas Vic, is a smaller version and can be found in Las Vegas.

Outside of Vegas, YESCO was asked to build the interior system for the Utah Jazz in the Vivint Center. The company only had a little less than three months to build it and put up 10,000 square-feet of screen.

More of the YESCO company can be seen on CBS “Undercover Boss” Season 7, Episode 5. Jeff Young disguises himself and gets a feel for life at his own company. More of YESCO’s work and ins-and-outs of the company are shown in the show!

Reporting and story by Cayley Dishion for Reno Tahoe Business Report

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Reno Tahoe business news reported by students at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno

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Cayley Dishion

Cayley Dishion

Journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno

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