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December 22, 2014

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We’ll soon overtake the U.S. heartland

Las Vegas and much of the Intermountain West will supplant the Midwest as the nation's heartland over the next four decades as growth brings the region a diverse population, a thriving economy and political clout, according to the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.

Given those changes, Brookings has embarked on a study of the region's potential and its needs and limits. Brookings hopes its findings will help public officials in the region's five states understand their shared challenges and work to increase their clout in Washington.

"This is the real melting pot and the real heartland," said Mark Muro, policy director for Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "Las Vegas, Phoenix, with all those areas we have to begin to realize that there is a tremendous arising power and significance here that in some ways embodies many of the greatest traditions of the country."

Brookings is a private nonprofit organization that has analyzed issues and advocated solutions for nearly a century. Focusing on the Intermountain West, Brookings has identified five emerging mega-urban areas: Las Vegas, including northern Mohave County, Ariz.; Phoenix and Tucson; Utah's I-15 corridor; metropolitan Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M.; and Colorado's Interstate 25 corridor, including Denver.

Those areas face challenges particularly in education, transportation and the environment, with water becoming a critical issue in the desert Southwest.

Persuading Western states to work together is a lofty undertaking for a region whose states and cities have traditionally competed for population, industrial growth and resources, especially water.

The history of Las Vegas, in particular, is one of scarcity. It was built on the ingenuity of people who sought to scratch a community out of the parched Mojave Desert. In recent decades, a booming resort and gaming industry and the region's lure for retirees have brought a sustained population surge that has given Las Vegas a sense of permanence - and strained its resources.

Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, said shortages in the face of growth are a binding force throughout the region.

"In many ways, you're more cognizant of the way in which economies are organized," Katz said. "Clearly, you're bearing the brunt of development. But you're also cognizant because you are facing sustainability challenges and your relationship to the environment is more intimate than in other parts of the country."

In discussing the Brookings study, Katz said Las Vegas and other Western cities have suffered from misconceptions in Washington.

Statistically, from 1980 to 2000, the Las Vegas metropolitan area ranked second among 100 metro areas nationwide in the conversion of rural acres for suburban uses per new home. Essentially, that means Las Vegas has made efficient use of land.

Another statistic: The number of annual vehicle miles traveled, per capita, in Las Vegas is 6,469. That also ranks second-lowest among 100 cities, which average 10,058 vehicle miles a year. Those figures suggest that Las Vegans live closer to where they work, which means the city has less sprawl than most other metro areas.

The statistics, compiled by Brookings, refute a misconception of Las Vegas and the other intermountain cities as places of rampant sprawl and vast resources rather than as growing cities with needs. "In national circles, these regions have been frequently misunderstood or marginalized in the national discourse," Muro said. "They are now reaching a critical mass and a power to begin asserting their own needs and agendas."

Brookings hopes its research will help the Intermountain West areas join in common agendas to urge changes in the way the federal government views the region.

If it works, it will be an example that growing regions in the rest of the country mimic, said Katz, who was Housing and Urban Development chief of staff in the Clinton administration. "The country as a whole has to reimagine a different relationship with the federal government.

"We've had a national government that's been adrift for decades while the environment has begun to fester, while challenges like global warming and the growing divide between education and income groups has grown," he said. "We need what a good part of the world has, which is an accountable federal partner."

Brookings officials are in Las Vegas this week for a series of public forums and meetings in conjunction with tonight's Democratic presidential debate on CNN. The debate, which begins at 5 on the UNLV campus, will include questions from undecided Nevada voters.

Of the candidates, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been the most assertive on the role of the federal government in addressing Nevada's water concerns. Richardson has said he would make the Bureau of Reclamation, which handles federal water issues, a Cabinet-level agency and that the nation should be pumping water to Southwestern states from the northern Midwest. He and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama have called for a national water policy.

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