Nevada shows West the way
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, November 18, 1997
LAS VEGAS – “Vast acreage surrounded by untouched public lands; unique desert terrain teeming with native wildlife; a bustling metropolis; a Jack Nicklaus golf course…” So reads the brochure of the new Lake Las Vegas development designed for upscale retirees or the Lone Eagle freelance professional working from his desert home to deliver services over the Internet.
What is this picture? It’s part of the new and emerging Nevada, the subject of last week’s conference on economic development convened by Gov. Bob Miller. The old Nevada was rooted in natural resources. Nature left large deposits of gold and silver, which gave the state its start when four Irishmen discovered the Comstock Lode in 1859, igniting a boom that attracted thousands of miners and other settlers and paid out more than $500 million in silver over the next 20 years.
During this century, a new and largely manmade economy enhanced the traditional mining and ranching economy. It began with gaming, divorce and shady characters. In 1936, Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo, the first big casino-hotel on the Las Vegas strip. Las Vegas gaming now attracts more than 30 million tourists and $25 billion a year in revenues. Altogether, gaming accounts for nearly half the jobs in the state and provides most of the revenue in a state that has no income, corporate or inheritance taxes.
On the surface, things are going well in Nevada. Nevada’s politics are squeaky clean by most accounts, and Nevada has been at the top among America’s fastest-growing states, with some of the nation¹s fastest-growing areas, since the 1960s — including population, job and income growth. But underneath the surface is tremendous change. The Las Vegas gaming industry is trying to become family-friendly. Retirement, non-gaming recreation and Lone Eagle businesses are increasingly promoted. Most telling, business and political leaders, like Gov. Miller, want to see more economic diversification.
Miller and other state officials called on community, business and education leaders to shun complacency even though times are good. Complacency, they said, is dangerous. Trends are changing — in technology, demographics, lifestyles, and consumer fads and fashions. This is the time, they said, to improve education and transportation — and where needed to build anew. Leaders also want to rearrange some furniture (e.g., telecommunications reform, the Nevada Test Site) and even to buy some new furniture — as in the growth of specialty and high-tech manufacturing and biotechnology.
Nevada’s leaders are clearly committed to speeding up the process of economic diversification. They seem to be moving from old ideas of economic development, which depend heavily on measures of population growth, to new ideas that involve building high-performance communities where wealth grows faster than population and enterprises become more productive and more competitive.
Nevada is off to a good start if high-technology is an indication. According to a recent report by the American Electronics Association, high technology in Nevada is dominated by telecommunications services (primarily credit card, call-in and other corporate service centers), software and computer services, and industrial electronics and computer manufacturing. Nevada’s high-tech jobs grew 17 percent last year and now exceed jobs in mining — and Nevada’s high-tech jobs are good jobs, averaging more than $39,400 annually compared to $26,900 in the rest of the private sector. High-tech now accounts for 24 percent of Nevada’s exports, growing at 18 percent last year.
Nothing is a sure bet, especially in Nevada. But Nevada’s leaders seem determined to fix the roof while the sun is shining. That’s a good lesson for political and civic leaders everywhere.