HENDERSON, NEV. — The view from Hunter's Ridge, a hilltop development about 12 miles east of Las Vegas, sums up the latest chapter of promise and peril in the developing American West.
What 15 years ago was still mostly rubble-desert valley stretching 18-by-26 miles between jagged mountains is now a foothill-to-foothill carpet of tiled rooftops. In between, a honeycomb of congested streets pulses with sport utility vehicles that dart in and out of strip malls, schools, and country clubs.
Henderson, Nev., once a backwater butt of jokes for slick gamblers in Las Vegas, has now pushed its glitzy neighbor out of the No. 1 spot as America's fastest-growing city. Nearly doubling in size since 1990 (from 64,948 to 122,339), the suburban desert town spotlights a new kind of migration - to what demographers call the "mild wilds" - and a cutting-edge prototype of the budding American suburb.
It is also a signal that the town that began with gambling, quick divorce, and shady gangsters - nearby Vegas - has become a modern, broad-based metropolis with sprawling bedroom communities that are not reliant on gambling.
"The population explosion of Henderson encapsulates several phenomena that have been building in the West for a decade," says Phil Burgess, president of the Denver-based Center for the New West.
No. 1 is a growing emphasis away from the West's traditional "extractive" industries - coal, timber, gold, and silver - to high-tech and professional services such as health, computers, finance, construction, and travel.
No. 2 is the attractiveness of relatively cheap land and cheap housing to senior citizens, young families, and single professionals. To those drawn to a life in sunny climates where they can stay connected to jobs or family in the "real" world via new technologies, southern Nevada offers a major bonus: no personal, corporate, or inheritance taxes.
The tandem is driving yet another change in Western demographics, says Mr. Burgess: "people-driven" population growth. "Young and old alike have learned that it's pretty nice to live in the desert, and the influx of each attracts even more of the same," he says.
In keeping with another trend reflected in other parts of America, the changes here add up to a new kind of American city. It is a place with few high-rises, little or no public transportation, and self-contained master-planned communities with wide boulevards and no downtown.
"The clich is a comfortable place where you can 'live, work, and play' ... that's what they're buying into," says Tom Kennedy, consultant to the homebuilding industry.
According to US Census figures released last month, America's fastest growing cities from 1990 to 1996 were not traditional major cities but those with about 100,000 people. Of 219 cities that now hold more than 100,000 people, 66 are suburbs - of those, 60 are in the South or West.
"The attraction [to Henderson] for me was simple," says Paul Donahue, a thirtysomething Navy retiree who just bought a five-bedroom house for $219,000. "Low cost and high quality of life."
The home Mr. Donahue just sold in Hawaii was half that size and nearly twice the price. The husband and father says his Navy pension of $1,400 a month will pay his mortgage, and any new work he can find on top of that will be gravy.
The perils of a cheap, comfortable life
But if a remote, affordable life of ease is the promise of growing communities like Henderson, the peril can also clearly be seen from hilltop developments - smog and congestion. The dual evils are the harbinger of a whole list of growth issues that Henderson and neighboring Las Vegas are just beginning to tackle.
"There is only one issue across this valley and that is growth," says Mike O'Callaghan, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper and former governor of Nevada. Noting burgeoning problems in upgrading streets, highways, and educational institutions, Mr. O'Callaghan says, "Every other issue is a subset of that."
So far, Henderson has done a remarkable job of keeping up with the problems of explosive growth, according to a panel of experts from the Washington-based Urban Land Institute (ULI). But the town's fortunes will be increasingly tied to those of the surrounding region in coming years, the panel said, and Henderson will not benefit from chauvinism.
"We found the residents of Henderson to be very independent-minded, as if they are special and the Las Vegas region is somewhere else," says Doug Porter, president of Growth Management Institute, who participated on ULI's advisory panel.
After boasting the fastest-growing city in America for six decades (Las Vegas), southern Nevada has only in the past year begun to focus seriously on the down side of its tremendous growth, O'Callaghan says. Side by side, the region's population has passed the golden mean of 1 million residents (now about 1.2 million). Incoming residents and businesses have been fleeing the higher taxes and higher regulation of neighboring states, especially California.
But according to Robert Parker, an urbanist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the social costs of population growth in the Las Vegas/Henderson region are high. They include nationwide highs in teen and senior suicide rates, school dropout rates, teen pregnancy, underage gambling, and drinking.
"Whatever urban problems you can think of, they are here in a big way and are not being talked about," says Dr. Parker. Such complaints are large in the eyes of lifetime residents but small to migrs from even larger cities such as Los Angeles.
At a yearly public-relations exercise known as "Preview Las Vegas," held Jan. 13 in downtown Las Vegas, local politicians from City Hall to Congress were vocal in their calls for the four-city, southern Nevada valley (comprising Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and Boulder City) to consider itself more a regional whole than competing entities. But speakers fell short of calling for measures that would formally slow the region's explosive growth, which has been averaging about 6 percent a year during the past decade.
"They know that any plan to limit growth would raise housing prices, land prices, and have drastic economic consequences across the region," says Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV. Partly because of this, he says, Henderson opposed a bill in the 1997 Nevada Legislature that would have established a growth boundary.
How many people can the region hold?
The debate swirls around a question that remains unanswered for the 7,700 new residents pouring in each month: How many people can the region accommodate? Some regional planners say it can hold 3 million to 4.5 million, while others say it will top off at just half that, about 350,000 more than live here now.
Besides available land and mobility, water is a key question. After complaining for years that rates of current usage will exhaust water supplies by 2006, Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority is sanguine that a new water-banking agreement with neighboring Arizona has ensured supplies until 2030.
But cost is another consideration. Home water hookups that now cost $600 to $1,000 could soar to $20,000, unless a proposed quarter-cent sales tax is approved by state voters in November.
"We think there is danger ahead," says ULI's Porter. "They have been finessing the problem of water ... and if Arizona suddenly decides it wants to keep what's theirs, southern Nevada could be really stuck."