What if Nevada stops growing?

Photo By dennis myers In downtown Reno, the sign for a large drugstore is covered over because the drugstore never opened. It was an important part of the kind of downtown amenities that were needed for residential growth in the city center.

The notion has been creeping around elite circles for months,
though there has been little public discussion of it. And the state
demographer—the person who keeps track of noses in Nevada for the
state government—has nothing about it on his website. But still
the talk goes on that Nevada may not be growing anymore, that, indeed,
it may be losing population.

The idea, to those who have lived here for a while, is almost a
contradiction in terms. Nevada has, in the memory of most living
residents, been defined by its growth. So if Nevada isn’t growing
anymore, what is its identity?

The most recent official population estimate for Nevada is
2,738,777, with most of that—71 percent—in Clark
County.

In 2006, the state fell out of its longtime spot as the fastest
growing state in the nation, replaced by Arizona. But while Nevada and
Arizona had occasionally switched spots on the list in the past, this
time Nevada is showing few signs of regaining its place. In fact, there
are indices that suggest the state is losing population. Since then,
the Census Bureau has dropped the state down another six places in the
ranking. New arrivals have been declining for several years. This year,
school enrollments have dropped sharply. Even in Lyon County, usually
the state’s fastest growing county, they’re down. No one
can remember the last time school enrollments declined in the state.
U-Haul recently reported data indicating it helped move 1.6 percent
more people out of Nevada than in so far this year.

Las Vegas once had so many businesses flooding in that it
didn’t even have a retention program like the state and Reno (a
retention program works to keep businesses from leaving). Now it
does.

California, traditionally a supplier of new Nevada residents, has a
lower jobless rate than Nevada, even though it too is hurting.

The idea that Nevada might actually be losing population is one that
state leaders avoid discussing, as though ignoring it will prevent it
happening. Losing population, after all, is so South Dakota. Nevada
can’t be that. This kind of denial has a history. For
decades after the collapse of the Comstock Lode, according to historian
Guy Louis Rocha, “there was a belief that there was more ore in
there if they could just find it. … By the time they got to the
1880s things were looking very, very bleak.”

Still, as late as Oct. 22, 1933, Reno’s Nevada State Journal
carried a front page story on the “comeback of the
Comstock,” a story that ran regularly in Nevada newspapers in the
years after the Lode’s decline without ever actually being true
until the onset of major tourism driven by the television program
Bonanza.

But not discussing it doesn’t make it go away. What it does is
prevent the state from planning for a post-growth future, if such turns
out to be the case.

It also could mean an end to low taxes for Nevadans, of no more
living off growth. Former Nevada higher education chancellor Jim Rogers
wrote in a recent report:

“Monies generated by newcomers created a Ponzi-scheme economy.
Those coming in subsidized those already in Nevada. Over time, neither
long-timers nor new residents were required to pay any substantial
taxes, causing necessary services, including education, to
suffer.”

Photo By dennis myers U-Haul is moving more people out of Nevada than in.

A lull in growth could be good for Nevada, said one surprising
source—Carole Vilardo, executive director of the Nevada Taxpayers
Association, a business group. She thinks it would be a good time to
take a look at the state’s tax system.

“If recovery comes, and we don’t return to the fastest
growing state in the nation, I think it gives us breathing room to
re-look at delivery of [government] services. … It allows you to
plan,” she said. “And hopefully people would think more
about putting away—and I mean governments—putting away
money and not spending every last cent that we get in when the economy
returns, so that there is a cushion, so that we’re not sitting
where we are right now that you’re looking at ‘Where do we
get more tax revenue?’ Because the lunacy is you try raising
taxes at a time when the reason you’ve got a problem is because
people aren’t spending money, whether they’re business or
individuals, so your tax revenue is down. So what do you do? You
increase taxes or you expand the taxes in a bad economy, and you get
less. So hopefully when we return to a good recovery, we get the
breathing room we need to take a long hard look.”

And if the state never returns to being a growth state?

“So long as your economy diversifies, you’re not going
to have a problem if we don’t have the same type of
growth.”

There’s the rub. Nevada has in living memory always been built
on tourism and construction. Efforts to diversify the economy have been
minimally successful.

University of Nevada associate professor Alicia Barber has written a
book, Reno’s Big Gamble, that focuses a lot of attention
on how the city’s economic life has changed and evolved over the
years. A low growth era, she said, jeopardizes some positive things
that seemed to be underway downtown.

“[I]t seems to me a lot of the impetus initially for a lot of
the changes happening downtown came from out of state. I think a lot of
people have been moving here from other cities who are interested in
kind of an urban lifestyle.”

She points to the downtown conversion of the Golden Phoenix casino
building into apartments and the construction of the Palladio as
properties that could bring people who want a sophisticated downtown
lifestyle to Reno. But, she said, the rest of the package after the
condos isn’t there to get them to actually make the move. Many
retail spaces are vacant or being vacated (including those on the first
floor of condo structures), a large drug store between the Montage and
Palladio never opened, and there is no grocery store in the
downtown.

“It had this potential to have this vibrant, energetic
downtown. We’ve already seen some of this kind of falling off
because of the economy, you know, with the condos not being able to get
filled,” Barber said. “But I think there’s a lot of
potential.”

Rocha said there’s a difference between the denial that
followed the decline of the Comstock, and today’s reluctance to
plan for a post-growth Nevada, though it has the same kind of attitude
behind it: “We’ll come back.” This time, he said, the
denial comes with consequences of not getting the state ready for the
future.

“What I see now is the same kind of thing, and it has been for
a while—‘We came back after 1981-82. We came back after
’91-92. We came back after 9/11.’ You know, ‘We came
back.’ And they kept growing, and they kept getting bigger, and I
think the attitude was, ‘Well, this is not going to stop.
We’ll always get bigger and better.’ And what they were
failing to do or maybe what makes this different is, ore is where you
find it. … But the signs on this one, the indices were out there.
All you had to do was look across the state line and watch these Indian
casinos growing to be substantial operations and that the landscape was
going to change. I don’t know how they could have missed
this.”

The state has made efforts to diversify the economy beyond gambling
and construction, but the results have been less than spectacular. For
a long time, growth of gambling kept up with the growth in businesses
lured to Nevada, with the result that the casino sector of the economy
did not change. Yet the state did not accelerate its efforts.

That era of casino growth is clearly past. There are reports that
tribal casinos in California have Las Vegas-style mega-resorts on their
drawing boards, which would hit Nevada particularly hard. Up to now the
heaviest loss of business to Native American operations in California
have been in Reno while Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe have escaped major
losses in customer shares.

There are also indications that the bloom is off the rose on
expansion of gambling generally, that the industry may have reached its
zenith. Atlantic City, an east coast gambling Mecca, for instance, is
struggling to survive and looking to non-casino ways to build its
economy.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.