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 Web site. But still
the talk goes on that Nevada may not be growing anymore, that indeed it
may be losing population.

The idea is almost a contradiction in terms. Nevada has always been
defined by its growth.

The most recent official population estimate for Nevada is
2,738,777, with most of that in the Las Vegas area. In 2006, the state
fell out of its longtime spot as the fastest-growing state in the
nation, replaced by Arizona. Since then, the U.S. Census Bureau has
dropped the state down another six places in the ranking. New arrivals
have been declining for several years. This year, even school
enrollments in Nevada dropped sharply. U-Haul recently reported that it
helped move 1.6 percent more people out of Nevada this year than
last.

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. But not talking about 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.

All of this could also 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.”

A lull in growth could be good for Nevada, said one surprising
source—Carole Vilardo, president 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 relook at delivery of [government] services. … It allows you
to plan,” she said.

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.

“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.”

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 megaresorts on their
drawing boards, which would hit Nevada particularly hard. Up to now,
the heaviest loss of business to American Indian 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 noncasino ways to build its
economy.

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Dennis Myers

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...