Rural Nevada: Independent Spirit Alive and Well

Rural Nevada seems to be rebounding in most communities that were hit the hardest, and recovering in a very positive manner.

Cover and article photo by John Dolan

Nevada’s rural economies are microcosms of the state’s economy, each with its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. While the rest of the country experienced the economic downturn, several of Nevada’s northeastern rural counties barely even blinked. As the economy dove and gold prices rose, mining counties like Elko are just now catching their breath as rapid growth slows.

For non-mining counties, and those that might have been struggling before the recession, the effects were felt more severely; some counties are only just beginning to recover.

Taking the unique geographies and histories into account, Nevada Commission on Tourism (NCOT) split the state into six territories – Pony Express, Cowboy, Indian and Nevada Silver Trails territories, in addition to the two metro areas. But while each rural county is unique, they often face similar critical issues with very different resources, communities and attitudes toward economic development, according to Ferrel Hansen, CEO, Rural Nevada Development Corporation.

Which rural counties are booming, which are still recovering from the economic downturn and what’s happening with rural special events and cultural gatherings?

Robust Rurals

From an economic standpoint, several of Nevada’s rural counties are very healthy, said Hansen, and many of those that are doing well are mining counties. Even with the recent drop in the price of gold, many of Nevada’s mining communities are looking for additional workforce and scrambling to meet housing needs.

“As the rest of the country has come out of the recession and started getting going again, we’ve slowed down enough to take a breath,” said Pam Borda, executive director, Elko County Economic Diversification Authority (ECEDA).

Struggling to keep up with growth, Elko hasn’t had enough housing, workforce or industrial land for new companies moving in. Administrators have been working with surrounding counties to recruit developers and contractors. Now new housing is going up and significant work is underway on two industrial parks.

Though mining can be feast or famine, for now, even with the drop in the price of gold, mining companies are only double checking operations and doing some belt tightening, said Borda.

Elko felt the recession in terms of workforce training. Funding cuts for Great Basin College, which Borda calls the top school in the state for career technical education, made it harder to train enough workers. ECEDA is working on ways to increase funding and facilities for training purposes.

Rural Recovery

Despite mining around Ely, White Pine County is seeing some strain from economics. Though he was on the city council and lobbied for the state prison now located there, Ed Spear, director, White Pine Convention Center, says he wasn’t prepared for the families that followed the inmates, often near-destitute despite low unemployment in the county.

Not every rural county has mining operations. Some of the counties struggling now were struggling before the recession, said Hansen. Rural Nevada Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization, works with rural counties and Native American tribes, offering economic development services, small business lending and low income housing programs.

Non-mining rural counties hardest hit during the recession are Lyon County in the north, where new housing construction was fast paced and heavy until the downturn, and Nye County in the south. Lincoln County was also affected by the recession, a ripple effect of the housing and economic development downturn in Las Vegas.

Lyon County was hit hard by the downturn and is struggling to recover, but a lot of agencies are focusing attention on Fernley and Lyon County because of the scope of economic depression the area experienced. Several Nevada economic authorities are focusing on economic and industrial development in Lyon County, and the values of single family homes and commercial properties are slowly moving up, said Hansen.

“I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to turn around entirely, but it’s going in the right direction. Fernley has a number of issues not necessarily due to the economic bubble and the downturn of the economy hit hard in a variety of different ways, but they’re a resilient bunch working hard on economic development in Lyon County, and as a result they’re coming out of it, slowly but surely,” said Hansen.

Nevada Rural Development Council performs community assessments and has found certain elements rural communities share, like the need for economic development, concerns about youth and education and infrastructure. According to Carl Dahlen, executive director, Fernley is one of the communities to embrace the assessment, incorporating suggestions into its strategic plan and connecting with September’s Burning Man event, making itself the gateway to the Black Rock Desert and featuring artwork from the event around town.

Signs of recovery are starting in Nye County; housing values are increasing. “Pahrump is reported as one of the fastest growing jurisdictions in Nevada and that’s welcome to our ears,” said town manager Susan Holecheck.

As an unincorporated town, Pahrump works closely with Nye County to create a one-stop-shop with the county’s website, working toward making it easy to start businesses in Pahrump. Town administrators are focusing on strengths – Pahrump is close to Las Vegas and McCarran Airport, they’ve got a workforce of their own and from the neighboring metro area, and if that’s not enough for businesses looking to expand or relocate in Southern Nevada, Nye County is the third largest county geographically in the U.S. There’s also active marketing to snow birds and anyone looking for 75 degree fall days and mild winters.

Marketing Rural Nevada

Recognizing a region’s strengths isn’t enough – broadcasting those strengths helps a county thrive. Bringing in visitors, new residents and new industry is critical to keep an economy vibrant.

Pahrump is beginning to market through business media on one front and through Southern California parks’ guides on another. Areas like Mesquite and Laughlin can use the proximity to the metro area to work with those visitors’ authorities.

The focus of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) obviously is primarily on Las Vegas and Clark County with their 163,000 hotel rooms. Laughlin, by comparison, has 10,315 and Mesquite 1,736. But the extended destination sales office is located in Laughlin and the executives there work to generate sales opportunities to groups and meetings for Laughlin and Mesquite. Both jurisdictions market to smaller groups, and both are located on I-15, the road to Las Vegas from Utah and Northern Arizona, so pass through traffic makes up some of the visitation and income.

Both Laughlin and Mesquite draw regional visitors, residents from Southern Nevada visiting from a 200 to 300 mile radius, said Kevin Bagger, senior director, Strategic Research & Analytics, LVCVA. While Southern Nevada as a whole was affected by the recession, Laughlin and Mesquite also felt a pinch when Las Vegas properties aggressively discounted packaging and room rates in the depths of the recession to drive demand, coming up with very attractive rates.

“When you have the rates, the variety and the quality of product that’s available in Las Vegas, [it] trickles out into a ripple effect on Laughlin and Mesquite where room rates were already what Las Vegas was able to achieve,” said Bagger.

Still, drive-to destinations accessible for long weekend trips rather than the pre-recession two week vacation are popular. White Pine County is seeing a strong increase in tourism since 9/11 when people stopped flying and started driving and Ely has maintained its increase in visitor volume.

“We’re attracting people out of Las Vegas,” said Spear. “Ordinarily they’d travel halfway across the U.S. but now they don’t have the time or the money to do extended vacations. But they can take four or five day trips.” So Ely and the Pony Express Territory events are promoted to Nevada residents and snow birds visiting the state and at travel trade shows that actively market to people looking for new places to explore and claim they’ve “survived Highway 50.”

Developing Economies

So what do counties do to bolster their economies? Depends on their resources for attracting businesses and individuals to their communities, said Hansen. They have to sell themselves. Some, like Elko with its myriad special events and booming economy, do a great job. Others, with fewer resources to market, have a harder time bringing in residents, visitors or industry.

It’s hard to find a consensus of what makes a successful rural county in Nevada, though it may be diversifying county economies that leads to success. Mining has always been cyclical, following the value of precious metals. By diversifying, the counties are working on economic development programs that would bring more industry, more businesses and more tourism into their communities and looking at strengths to sell their areas – White Pine has significant land and is marketing to technology companies that need space.

Communities that have struggled in the past, like Pahrump in Nye County, are working to diversify their economy, but it’s still possible to buy very expensive housing at very low prices. While there are limited high-paying jobs in the area, Pahrump is a vibrant community with residents who weathered the economic downturn and is, “seeing a lot of new growth and economic viability,” said Hansen.

The territories NCOT divided the state into operate as distinct, volunteer-based organizations, separate from the destination marketing authorities like convention and visitors authorities. NCOT’s grants program was recently boosted to $1.4 million in matching marketing grants for rural tourism entities.

While growth in areas like Elko isn’t attributable to tourism, the growth is conducive to tourism. Growth in mining counties leads to new housing and hotels, updated infrastructure, enhanced superstructure.

“For mining industry workers to live here, along with that comes infrastructure improvements, and that helps tourism,” said Claudia Vecchio, director, NCOT. “In Nevada, infrastructure is a major issue for travelers, and we welcome these mining companies building up the infrastructure, it’s a huge boost to tourism.”

Community Involvement

A rural community’s strength is often built around community pride, said Dahlen, and the way people in a community will pull together around specific problems. The challenge is then getting people involved on a daily basis.

Leadership training programs address those challenges. Close to 200 people have gone through Douglas County’s program since its inception; University of Nevada, Reno offers rural community leadership training programs through its Cooperative Extension. Often it’s not so much a lack of leadership in these areas as a lack of understanding how decisions are arrived at and what roles are for elected officials, said Dahlen.

“I’m very pleased that after the downturn and the desperation in the economy nationwide and in the state, rural Nevada seems to be rebounding in most communities that were hit the hardest, and recovering in a very positive manner,” said Hansen. “The people in rural areas are hardworking and they’re making things turn around and happen. I think we’re all going to be better off as a result of it. Diversification of rural Nevada economies is the most important thing those communities could be doing right now, and it’s better to try to bring someone into a healthy, vibrant community and show them how great it is than to try and attract businesses when the economy is depressed.”