A tale of how two cities have dealt with growth

Las Vegas is growing so fast its plumbing can't keep up. Reno's population is stagnant, but the air quality is good.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has too much of it. Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin wants more of it. Gov. Kenny Guinn is worried his state can't sustain it.

"It" is population growth - the spur in the side of the American West. As the nation's fastest-growing state - by far - Nevada is experiencing much of the economic dynamism and social diversity that come with a jump in population.

Yet the state known for quickie marriages, quickie divorce, gambling, and prostitution is also struggling with the excesses of popularity: traffic jams on its dusty desert highways, clashes over water rights, and long-term concerns over how to keep enough kilowatts flowing through its looping power lines.

In the process, the home of Bonanza's Cartwright family is chipping away at the rugged empty spaces - and rural way of life - that once symbolized the boundlessness of the American imagination.

The numbers are jarring. In a decade, Nevada has grown 66 percent - well ahead of second-place Arizona (40 percent), Utah (30 percent), and Montana (20 percent).

But while the state's growth has been fast and steady, it has also been lopsided. And therein, say experts, lies a story that is key to understanding a historic shift within modern Nevada.

"The full view of what is happening in modern Nevada today can be seen by watching the shifting fortunes of north and south, Reno and Las Vegas," says Mike O'Callahan, former governor and now editor of the Las Vegas Sun. "We are watching a dramatic shift of people, wealth, political clout, water, power, and all the rest."

This migratory flood is closing the third chapter in a two-century saga of settlement patterns. Migration to Nevada began with rural mining settlements in the early 1800s, later shifted farther north to Reno - spurred by the lure of gambling and gold - and is now funneling like a sieve to the neon-lit mecca of the south, Las Vegas.

But in a broader sense, this tale of two cities - Reno and Las Vegas - offers a case study in the kinds of choices pressing in on cities and regional governments across the West, over whether and how to grow.

"The divergent choices being made now by Reno and Las Vegas in how to deal with shifting population really put a microscope over the test facing urban areas in Western states," says Joel Kotkin, author of "The New Geography," a book that analyzes modern demographic shifts. "One city is carefully embracing quality while the other is relying on quantity."

Sin City or Smog City?

Las Vegas, for its part, has been the nation's fastest-growing city for more than 60 years (only recently surpassed by Henderson, one of its suburbs). Now, however, the city is starting to pay a price for its boom mentality.

With neon and stucco spreading into every corner of the vast valley, capped by a run of new mega-casinos, the city is struggling to keep up with the most basic services - schools, roads, plumbing, the water that comes out taps. The city was recently cited for clean air violations. Traffic jams are now as ubiquitous as Elvis impersonators, and social problems like crime and homelessness are rising.

"This city is not paying attention to the problems it is generating as it rushes to consume this entire valley," says Robert Parker, an urbanist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "Police, fire protection, social services, trash collection - you name it, and you find a city in near gridlock. It's nuts."

Part of the dilemma for Las Vegas - as well as for Nevada as a whole - is its utter dependence on the 35 million visitors who come annually to spend billions in casinos. The state has no income tax, and collects no property tax on the 87 percent of state land owned by the federal government - making gaming revenue the primary source of funding for everything from school budgets to healthcare to transportation.

And while Las Vegas has created a wealth of new jobs in recent years, the overwhelming majority - the highest of any American city - were in retail, food, and hotel services. As a result, fewer than 1,000 of the estimated 70,000 migrants to Nevada from 1997 to 1999 were college graduates.

"Until Vegas figures out how to diversify its economy, most of its jobs, and the employees who take them, will be from the low end of the spectrum," says Mr. Parker.

With the influx of cooks, hotel maids, and 7-Eleven clerks has come the need for more housing. Stucco subdivisions are spilling across the desert, where young immigrant families are buying three-bedroom homes for $120,000. But the city is experiencing little office construction, which correlates with higher-end jobs and provides a downtown economic base.

The city's almost total existence as an entertainment service economy - a decadent Disneyland in the desert - symbolizes another challenge for the state as well: Most of its people come and go.

"We are a state which imports its cash from visiting travelers, and that needs to change," says Governor Guinn. "When you import, you don't build real wealth. You just build cash, which is fleeting."

Guinn's long-term strategy is to diversify the economy by raising the educational level of the state population - now near the bottom of the US - to attract the kinds of businesses that need educated workers.

The mayor's vision

While Guinn is trying to move the state beyond slot machines and blackjack from his gubernatorial perch in Carson City, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is pushing for it down in the mesquite trenches.

Eighteen months into a job nobody thought he could win, let alone handle, the former mob lawyer turned urbanist is lauded for an irrepressible enthusiasm that makes people feel good, in a city that basically exists for the same purpose. His pet project at the moment: trying to revitalize a downtown hollowed out by one of the biggest hotel- and casino-building binges in history - most of it on the edge of the city.

Just blocks from City Hall, at the confluence of the valley's two largest freeways, lies a 61-acre parcel of land recently purchased by the city. Plans for the site range from new baseball and football stadiums to commercial development. The mayor envisions cafes, boutiques, museums - "real" culture in a city known for Wayne Newton and Siegfried and Roy.

"This is the best piece of real estate that a large city could ever hope for," says Mayor Goodman. "It's really the opportunity of a lifetime for a city like ours to develop a piece of property in what will become the heart and soul of the entire region."

The rise of Goodman from mere celebrity to urban architect is a story few anticipated. Before he ran for office, he was known for his legal practice - more specifically, for his clients, which included reputed mob figures like Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro and Meyer Lansky. A 38-year Vegas resident, Goodman says he doesn't miss the days in courtrooms. "I don't have to sit there sweating because I've made a mistake that will cost my client a long sentence or life in prison," he says.

That's not to say that being mayor of Sin City doesn't come with its own set of frustrations. For one thing, Las Vegas has a weak mayoral system, essentially putting Goodman on par with other city council members. But much of the decisionmaking in the region goes on outside city limits, anyway - along the massive Las Vegas strip and deep inside its mega-casinos.

The ongoing power struggle between Goodman and the casinos can be seen in the mayor's fight to force them to extend a four-mile, $600 million monorail - the largest, privately funded mass transit system in the country - an extra mile to connect to the downtown, providing added impetus for businesses to locate there.

"It will take more than Oscar Goodman to carry out the ideas and plans he has espoused," says John Smith, political analyst for the Las Vegas Review Journal. "He is in a region with lots of bigger players but we are encouraged by what he has done so far."

A small town - with casinos

Although Reno, like the rest of Nevada, is also dependent upon gambling and sales tax revenue for 70 percent of its budget, Mayor Jeff Griffin is trying to use the city's other assets to distinguish it from Las Vegas - and attract businesses.

With rents one-tenth the cost of those in California's Silicon Valley (about three hours away), the mayor wants to turn the region into a mini-Silicon Valley of its own. Some firms (iGO and Sorb-Tech) have already relocated here and a long list of others has established warehousing, assembly, and support operations, including Cisco Systems, Intuit, Lucent, Amazon.com, Microsoft, and Barnes & Noble.

The city is planning what could be America's largest industrial park: a 104,000-acre plot where developers have planned state-of-the art industrial space, Internet warehousing, and a movie studio. "Whereas Vegas may be more tied to its gaming and entertainment, Reno is in a strong place to ... build itself a new economy by attracting the kind of workers it needs," says Bill Eadington, an economist at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Founded in 1868, Reno is often thought of as a smaller version of Las Vegas. But while it does have a neon-lit main drag lined with hotels and casinos, it also offers a surprising small-town charm.

A tree-lined river gurgles through a downtown brimming with redeveloped artists lofts, bohemian music venues, and first-rate galleries. It even has a serene university that could double for any in the Ivy League. "A whole new emphasis has been put on attracting an educated, eclectic ... group into the downtown," says Pamela Bobay, co-owner of Cui-ui, a contemporary gallery on N. Sierra Street, adjacent to the Truckee River. "It's giving the city a much more diverse and cultural feeling."

Despite its relatively small population (350,000 metro area), the city supports a full philharmonic orchestra, an opera, three dance companies, and the only certified museum in the state. It is also the gateway to Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Sierra countryside. City officials are also trying to use Reno's slow growth compared with Las Vegas (about 3 percent annually), and its relative isolation as a selling point for hunters, skiers, and hikers.

"What we have here that Vegas doesn't are mountains, clean air, snowy slopes, and more temperate weather," says Dave Howard, a staff analyst for the Reno Chamber of Commerce. "People here like it just fine that we are not growing any faster."

But while Reno may not have Las Vegas's pollution problems, its slower growth is about to cost it some real political clout. When the 2000 census figures are used to reapportion state legislative districts, Las Vegas's Clark County is expected to gain three seats in the House and at least one in the Senate, while northern and rural counties will almost certainly lose seats.

"[The fact that] three-quarters of the population [is now] living in Las Vegas just made the northern part of the state politically impotent," said David Thomson, author of "In Nevada" and a sixth-generation Nevadan, in a recent radio interview.

Lamenting a 1999 state Senate race in which every county in the state voted for one candidate - except for populous Clark County, whose sheer numbers put its choice over the top - Mr. Thomson says, "the list goes on: Water rights for the traditional farmers are being taken away, and ... Nevada's true lifestyle - the ranching and mining - is kind of slipping away."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A tale of how two cities have dealt with growth
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today