In a departure from its usual format, Nevada Business Journal brought together leaders from rural towns and counties throughout the state for this month’s roundtable breakfast. The meeting was held on April 23rd in Pahrump, in conjunction with the Nevada Commission on Tourism’s (NCOT) annual Rural Roundup conference. The meeting was moderated by Bruce Bommarito, NCOT executive director. Read on to discover what people in the small towns across Nevada are doing to attract tourists and stimulate businesses in their community.
The meeting began with introductions. Participants were asked to describe one challenge their communities faces.
Kathleen Farrell: I’m the executive director of the Tahoe/Douglas Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center on the South shore of Lake Tahoe. Our list of challenges include affordable housing and transportation, but the pinnacle is the challenge of Indian gaming and the impact it has on the South Shore, as well as the whole state and region.
Don Shanks: I’m the chairman of Pioneer Territory. I can’t speak for the whole territory, so I’ll just speak for Lincoln County, since I’m the only one here from Lincoln. Our biggest challenges are a lack of infrastructure, and trying to keep Las Vegas from taking all our water.
Ralph McMullen: I’m the executive director of the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority, and I serve as chairman of Cowboy Country. We’re putting together a major new recreation trail program on our great wide-open public lands, and probably the biggest challenge is getting all the private, state and federal agencies working together as we establish this trail program.
Kim Peterson: I’m with the Winnemucca Convention and Visitors Authority. Our biggest challenge is to find ways to offset what could be a deficit in our community as the major mines start to scale down or actually close. We’re trying to replace that economic inflow into our community with other opportunities.
Gill Hernandez: I’m Gill Hernandez, Elko Convention and Visitors Authority Board. One of my biggest challenges is being the chairman of the marketing committee and not really knowing anything about marketing. I do have people skills, and I need them to help keep everybody in a sharing mood. If everybody shares their ideas, there’s enough to go around, eventually.
Meg Fair: At Lake Mead Cruises, our greatest challenge is the lowering water level at the lake and the negative publicity associated with that. Lake Mead does have water in it – lots of water –we just have to adjust to the lowering water, and have the California tourists still come visit us.
Joe Curtis: I’m with the Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority, and serve as the secretary for Reno/Tahoe Territory. In Virginia City, we have two main challenges: trying to convince non-resident business owners to clean up their structures and make them look more pleasant, and convincing people to work together on a single idea and direction.
Rod Fair: I’m with Lake Mead Cruises. Our biggest challenge is competing for the leisure market. We’re 25 miles out of town, and we need to get Las Vegas visitors to come out to Lake Mead.
Wally Cuchine: I’m from Eureka County, with the Eureka Opera House. Getting people from Las Vegas and Reno to come to Eureka is a lot harder than getting them to Lake Mead.
Larry Friedman: I’m with the Nevada Commission on Tourism. I wish I had the funds to help the smaller rural chambers with administrative expenses and give them more money for infrastructure.
Bill Chernock: The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority is a little bit different than the ones you represent, in that my constituency is in California and Nevada. At the moment, our No. 1 issue is funding. From a destination point of view, our challenge is in moving to a new type of resort. The old South Shore of Lake Tahoe of small motels and weekend visitation is gone, and the new one is partially built and partially being marketed, but we need to continue the transition.
Karen DeJoria: At the Moapa Valley Chamber of Commerce, our major challenge is to let people know where we are. We represent the towns of Overton, Logandale, Moapa, Glendale, Warm Springs and Muddy River. We are on the north shore of Lake Mead, so we’ve had the same problem as others have with Lake Mead. We also have a problem with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, because it’s our water they want to take for the growing Las Vegas area. Valley of Fire is right outside our door and we have the Lost City Museum, which is excellent. We have great attractions, we just need to get the word out.
Candace Duncan: I’m the executive director of the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, and right now our biggest challenge is getting enough funding together to reconstruct the Virginia Truckee Railroad from Virginia City to Carson City. We’re making great strides. We have a bridge, and we have raised $4 million, but we need about $16 million more to finish the project.
Susan Sutton: I’m the executive director for Virginia City Tourism, and my biggest challenge is creating a cohesive, comprehensive marketing organization that will attract new tourism businesses to Virginia City, and revitalize it to its former status.
Shar Peterson: I’m the director for the Battle Mountain Chamber of Commerce. We face many challenges, just like the rest of you. One of the biggest is overcoming being labeled “The Armpit of America.” But, when it comes down to it, one of the biggest things we face right now is changing the focus and the attitude of the people in the community so they recognize that we cannot continually rely upon mining. We have the Phoenix project coming online with Newmont Mining Company, which will probably start construction the end of this year, so the attitude has swung back to, “Mining is our savior again.” We have to change that focus. We need to develop a variety of things rather than being dependent on mining.
Meg McDaniel: I’m a sales executive with the Laughlin Visitors Bureau. Like all our communities, we have a number of issues facing us. Because of our location, we must work with our neighbors in Arizona and California on several projects, including a second bridge in our area and realigning the Needles Highway. We’re also planning an equestrian events center. From a Visitors Bureau standpoint, our major challenge is Indian gaming. Although in Laughlin we haven’t seen as big an impact as some other Nevada communities, we need to be better prepared to face the growth in Indian gaming.
Virginia Ridgway: I’m from Esmeralda County, and I’ve been a member of Pioneer Territory from the start. We are dealing with three major issues. One was the signage and the horrible look of downtown Goldfield, which we’ve taken care of. Second, we bought a city block with an original old bottle house on it and a nice original look to the area. We’re trying to open a visitors center there, complete with bathrooms. We have $30,000 already set aside for the bathrooms, and we’re working with the owner. The other thing we’re working on is the possibility of getting a state park three miles off the highway in Esmeralda County.
Friedman: That puts everything in perspective. You people have nothing to complain about – at least you have bathrooms. (General laughter)
Rick Gray: The ongoing challenges of the Fallon Convention and Tourism Authority are maintaining a clean and vibrant community and growing our business base. Fallon is working very hard to develop its business park and redevelop downtown, and we’ve done a great job. There are still negative perceptions when you talk about Fallon, but we’ve turned the corner in several ways.
Jan Morrison: Austin is unique in that we’re in the center of the state, and we’re connected to everybody. We depend on everybody here to send visitors to us, and we send them to other places as well. We’re a small town of 250. We know our visitors on a first-name basis, and they keep coming back to us because of that. However, we have some important business problems. We do not have a bank or a grocery store. We go to Fallon to buy groceries, and it’s 112 miles away. A grocery store is a function of rooftops, and our rooftops are coming. We have Bay Area people coming up to buy homes, and Fallon people have homes in Kingston Canyon, where the hunting and fishing is incredible. We really need a bank. We’ve had over $2 million invested in our Main Street, which is a good old-fashioned, well-defined Main Street. All that money has been from people like me who brought money in from other places. We have 13 sites on the National Register [of Historic Places], and quite a few that qualify to be added on, but we don’t have the money to restore them. We need banking and investment. People are moving into our town because it’s a wonderful place to grow kids, so we need to work on our elementary schools. We cannot get insurance on commercial buildings, so that’s another major problem. We need an aggressive bank that tells the truth when it says it’s going to re-invest and help rural communities.
Carl Dahlen: I’m Carl Dahlen. I’m the director of rural community and economic development for the Nevada Commission on Economic Development. My greatest challenge is helping communities understand their real economic potential. Too often communities are looking for somebody to come in from somewhere else and bail them out. Mining has been doing it for years, so it’s hard to get people to focus and work together to build their own healthy, viable economy from within.
Bruce Bommarito: My challenge is that as an agency, our funding has been pretty much flat, at least for the three years since I’ve been here. Because of the aggressiveness of my staff and the aggressiveness of the rural areas, which submit really great grants, we have lots of projects we would like to fund, but we are struggling to survive at the same levels we have in the past years. I wish we could do more. The first topic on our agenda is funding stability. Any comments on that?
The Challenge of Funding
Cuchine: In Eureka, the county has had money to invest in the Opera House, in restoring the courthouse and the museum. We’re now looking at putting in a mining park. The problem we have is that, if the county accepts the Ruby Hill property as a mining park and we take it over, we’re adding that much more cost to our annual budget. If mining doesn’t succeed, where is that money going to come from? If revenues go down, suddenly we’ve got this huge liability, and what do you do about that?
DeJoria: We have the same problem with the old Logandale School. It’s all restored and it’s a gorgeous building, but we are having a hard time keeping it maintained and paying the electric bill.
Chernock: I think it needs to be said that Nevada “gets it,” as a state. The Nevada funding formula for how TOT (transient occupancy tax/room tax money) is distributed is really the envy of other Western states. We understand what our business is, and we flow the marketing money properly, and that’s an enormous head start. As things change and grow, and as general-fund issues get more pressing, I’m sure we’ll see what we’ve seen in other states – that TOT money will be coveted by county commissions and city councils, and it will be under pressure. That leads you to the next level, where groups of private businesses need to form assessment districts and business improvement districts so we can protect that money, and have it continue to flow for tourism promotion.
Morrison: The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and the U.S. Forest Service have been trying to work more on public-private partnerships. You can’t do anything on public lands without going through them first. One of the BLM employees in Battle Mountain suggested that in the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process, when a new mine is going to open, we should set up conditions on what’s going to be done when it closes. Right now, all infrastructure is required to be pulled out. Those telephone lines, those roads, those buildings, all have to be taken off the face of the earth. These could be incredible assets for a small rural county. If you can work out something in the original agreement where that infrastructure can be turned over or used in some way when the mine closes, we’re not left with a scarred property with no roads. There are so many things you can do on these mining properties that would be great. Carl (Dahlen) is a great resource for information on that.
Ridgway: Why couldn’t the rurals form some kind of a committee to address these problems en masse instead of each area with its own little squeaky voice? If we had some type of a committee together, would that help?
Dahlen: I know that in Elko County, there’s a group working on what they call sustainability from mining, and it’s looking at reuse, and how to make the best use of those facilities. In Beatty, the National Park Service is going to be using the mine buildings for its headquarters, which is going to be a real boon for Beatty. At the Robinson pit mine, near Ely, they’re looking at producing wind-generated power. Those mines all have a great deal of power infrastructure in place: substations and lines coming in that you can use to send power back out. I think the Cortez mine in Lander County is also looking at that. The Nevada Mining Association is very interested in this project as well, and there’s been some preliminary discussions about doing something as a statewide, sustainable mining effort sometime this summer.
DeJoria: Another resource would be the Rural Nevada Associated Chambers. This organization is now two years old, and we are going into the lobbying business where we can be a voice, to go to the Nevada Legislature and present a united front.
Shanks: I had a comment on funding. One of the problems in all the rural areas is the leakage of the taxes and income out of these counties. I know Lincoln County has a tremendous leakage. Because we don’t have the shopping available, we don’t have the sales tax base or the room tax base. We’re not bringing in the income to do the things we need.
McMullen: Another option for funding is to see what’s available for trails and roads. In Elko County, we have literally thousands of miles of roads and trails. Some are old mining roads that have deteriorated. The Nevada Division of State Parks has grant money available through federal National Recreation Trail Funds for projects on federal land. You can use this money for everything from information kiosks, to improvement of trails, to signage and even brochures. We received about $70,000 last year for funding our new recreation trail program, and we just received another $30,000 yesterday. The U.S. Forest Service also has Rural Development Assistance grants. Money is out there – you just need to know where to go and how to go after it.
Bommarito: I would like to point out that we shouldn’t take our funding for granted. In the legislative session prior to the last one, about $6 million earmarked for marketing tourism was diverted to general-fund agencies. Last session we were able to get that back down to about $1.7 million, but there’s aggressive competition for money. So we can’t go to sleep on that. We really have to have a strong voice.
Ridgeway: How do you fight it?
Bommarito: We fight it through facts and figures and presentations to the Legislature, but individuals in the state who recognize the value of tourism can fight better than we can to protect that money. They need to express their opinions to their state legislators.
Hernandez: When mining is booming, we tend to forget that the good old days are going to be gone sooner or later. You have to plan ahead, and I’d like to commend the Rural Roundup for helping us do that. It’s one of the best get-togethers I’ve been to. They do a good job in getting the word out there on grant writing and other information. The best thing, though, is what we’re doing right here: sharing our ideas, because we all have the same problems, and may have ideas of how to overcome those problems.
Bommarito: I agree. Singularly, we each have a small voice, but as a group, we have a big voice. It’s our responsibility to bring our message to Washington, D.C. and to other countries, but we need to do that same thing in our own state so people don’t take tourism for granted. All the states have been awakened to the importance of tourism and everybody in the world is competing for tourism revenue now.
Kim Peterson: What’s also important is the fact that these funds are limited. We need to invest them wisely, giving the highest priority to projects and opportunities that will sustain or grow room tax revenues so you have continued funding. While you’d like to invest in other opportunities that might be warm and fuzzy, you need to maintain your room tax base so you continually have the funds to do projects.
Ridgway: I’d like to remark that Esmeralda County has doubled its room tax base. We now have eight rooms instead of four. (General laughter).
Outdoor Recreation or Gaming?
Bommarito: Our next agenda topic is “gaming and/or outdoor recreation,” and which message we want to get out. Comments?
McMullen: In Elko County, the border cities of Jackpot and West Wendover have built several major casinos in the last few years that have cut into Elko’s gaming revenue. People from Utah or Idaho won’t drive another couple of hours past the border cities just to come to Elko to game. So we have to offer an additional package. That’s why we’re going after this whole new outdoor recreation “Adventures on the Edge” campaign, because we feel that’s where we have the advantage. We’re going into Utah and Idaho and other places promoting Elko, and we’re pushing Elko recreation with a sideline – you can also gamble. As a result of this, we have a lot of people come over and do both. If we had to depend solely on gaming, we would be in much more difficult economic shape. We’re promoting both gaming and outdoor recreation, and they really work together as a good partnership.
Duncan: It’s really frightening that so many other states have gaming, and Indian gaming is at our doorstep, but I think it’s important to remember that gambling started in Nevada and we are still the best at it. We know how to create that experience for people. The other great thing is that, maybe it isn’t the No. 1 reason people come to your destination anymore, but if you ask them what they did while they were there, gaming is the first thing they mention.
Bommarito: I agree with that. When NCOT went into promoting adventure, it was purely done as an additive market. It was never done at the intended expense of displacing our already established markets. People need a lot of different reasons to come, and if you read the surveys about Las Vegas now, gaming comes in fifth or sixth [as the reason tourists visit]. Well, if you really believe that, that’s okay. Some people want to give another reason why they come, and with our adventure activity, research will show you that hunters and golfers are tremendous gamers. So, we never plan to displace gaming.
Morrison: I’d like to also say that we’re getting seepage in Austin from people who have traditionally always gone to Reno. They decide to rent cars and come out. Many of us know the German and European groups are excited about the West and the Pony Express. They want to be immersed in that. Another tourist group we’re noticing more and more are Japanese. They love the Wild West, but they are also going to Utah to see the World War II internment camps.
Cuchine: That’s exactly why NCOT money is so important to us, because we really are drawing people up to Austin and Eureka – which have no gaming – because they want to be outdoors. Promoting adventure travel has helped us immensely. My tourists may be going on to Ely or Elko to gamble, but they’re coming to my area because they want to see something else too. Suddenly, they’ve seen that Nevada is more than Las Vegas.
Hernandez: One thing that’s to our benefit is that more and more people are moving into bigger communities. As cities grow, people want to get out and get away from city life. We need to use that to our advantage and promote the open space we have. Let them know we care about them and treat them right.
Dealing with Federal Agencies
Meg Fair: One of the other things we need to do is protect the opportunity for people to get into recreation areas. Many of the federal-lands agencies don’t necessarily encourage recreation, and they’re dipping into funding sources, which we could use, to almost discourage tourism in our public lands. At the [Lake Mead] National Recreation Area, the National Park Service acts like they would just as soon not have people there. As concessionaires at the lake, we also deal with the Bureau of Reclamation and the two federal agencies don’t communicate. I think the only way we can get people throughout Nevada out to recreate is to band together to get a really unified positive message out there.
Bommarito: We participate vigorously with the Western State Tourism Policy Council, which is joined with almost every federal agency that could remotely affect the outdoors: BLM, Fish and Wildlife, Corps of Engineers, etc., and we meet at least twice a year, so we could be a good voice for you.
Friedman: I’m glad you brought that up. Our agency has become extremely proactive and almost aggressive in dealing with one of the things you’re talking about. It seems like people who became land managers in the frontline did it so they could protect the land and not share it. However, they are now cooperating more with our agency. The new director of Nevada’s state parks has met with Bruce [Bommarito] on several occasions. Everybody in this room can be invited to go to the next conference put on by the Western States Tourism Policy Council, and that’s a good opportunity to meet with the land-management people.
Bommarito: What I find is that there’s total support from Secretary [of the Interior Gale] Norton and the people at the very top. However, farther down, it seems to dwindle a little bit, and at the park ranger level, it’s sometimes not there.
Cuchine: When you get to the real rural Nevada areas, like Austin and Lyon and Eureka Counties, the guys in the Forest Service and the BLM archaeologists are happy to work with us. They even want to bring tourists in to work on those archaeological sites. They want us to take care of the land, but they want to help us promote it, too.
Shar Peterson: If we begin on a local basis to form those partnerships, we have had very good luck.