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November 27, 2014

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NEW HEARTLAND: Brookings report predicts Nevada, nearby states will be American powerhouse …

… if they work together to solve problems

Nevada and four other states are poised to become a new American heartland, largely because of rapid growth combined with economic and demographic changes in five “megametro” areas including Las Vegas, a Brookings Institution report released today says.

The report warns, however, that states’ cooperation and a hard federal focus on interstate issues such as transportation and immigration are needed to ensure the massive influx of people winds up being good for the region and the nation as a whole.

The region — composed of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah — “is growing up, flexing its muscles, and distancing itself from California, which historically has had an outsized impact on the West’s development,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The study did not take into account Las Vegas’ current economic downturn or the possibility voiced by some experts that the region will take longer to recover than the nation as a whole. Mark Muro, co-author of the study, said research was conducted before the brunt of the slowdown hit.

“You are clearly suffering with an inordinate subprime (mortgage) overhang, and there are significant challenges for the casino and gaming industry right now, given constraints on household disposable income,” said Muro, policy director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

Still, he said, the study holds up because the forces that shape growth in this area are so powerful. Plus, researchers “do see strengths” in Las Vegas that ensure it will recover, including, for example, its emergence as a global convening place, “almost like Davos,” Muro added, referring to the Swiss city famous as the host to the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of global political and business elites.

But regardless of how long Las Vegas takes to rebound, the Brookings study suggests, an unavoidable truth will start shaping the way political leaders in the East view the West: They’ll no longer have the luxury of ignoring this region’s needs.

Nevada and other states in the region have been pegged as possible swing states in the November election, and in time — as it gains electoral votes from the population boom that, though slowed of late, will continue — the region could “play the storied ‘kingmaking’ role the Midwest does now.”

The Brookings report predicts, for example, that by the middle of this century Arizona will have more electoral votes than Ohio. And by 2030, the five “southern Intermountain West states,” as the study classifies them, will have added three times as many new residents as Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana.

If “America’s new heartland” is to make the most of that political opportunity, the report emphasizes, its five states will need to work more as a team to ensure the federal government — sooner rather than later — takes the lead on matters to which only it can attend.

With a hint of incredulity, for instance, the report notes that an interstate freeway does not link Phoenix and Las Vegas. Neither is there passenger rail service to the valley. Also needed are immigration reforms, a national framework to coordinate the reduction of greenhouse gases, and federal mediation to deal with the West’s growing thirst for diminishing water supplies.

And while areas such as Southern Nevada need creative solutions, the federal government needs to provide incentives to spur those changes, the study says.

“We’re just saying that states need to be a part of the solution and Washington ought to provide very significant rewards that help innovative ideas,” Muro said.

The 80-page report from what is billed as the nation’s oldest, largest and most independent think tank will be formally presented at a luncheon Tuesday in Denver. Speakers at the event will include Denver’s mayor, the governors of Utah and Colorado, and Jacob Snow, general manager of Clark County’s Regional Transportation Commission.

Snow will be there, in large part, because one of the key themes is that Las Vegas is the prime example of a “megametro” in the region that needs forms of travel other than long ribbons of concrete highways. Snow will talk about how decades of regional cooperation in Southern Nevada have helped it deal with intense mass transit issues associated with its enormous growth.

The report notes that although places like Las Vegas are relatively dense in terms of population, which is seen as a plus, they lack some urban amenities of other densely populated cities. Las Vegas, can however, with progressive ideas, change as quickly as it has grown, the researchers concluded.

“With the rapidity of growth, it is relatively easier for a place like Las Vegas to retrofit and reinvent what it is,” Muro said. “You have, essentially, a dense but somewhat monotonous carscape that you can turn into something truly livable and attractive in a short amount of time.”

Doing that would require strong working relationships among regional governmental bodies such as Clark County, Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas. Local governmental leaders attest that this kind of cooperative work is taking place at various levels, including in the management of water and mass transit.

Snow points to the Bruce Woodbury Beltway as a prime example of regional cooperation’s speeding along construction of a highway that would have taken five to 10 years longer if local governments had instead turned to the federal government for oversight.

“We didn’t think it could wait,” Snow said. “We went forward on our own, and I can’t imagine this community functioning without that facility to the point that it is today.”

But that’s just on a local-regional level. Snow said transportation leaders from the states that are the subject of the Brookings report have been meeting for a few years and finding common ground relating to the need for multiple modes of travel between their various urban areas.

“We have a unified vision for transportation, similar to what happened when the Interstate Highway System was built, that focuses on freight-corridor improvements and high-speed rail linking urban areas together,” he said.

Snow predicts construction of some sort of high-speed rail connection between Southern California and Las Vegas will occur within his lifetime.

In addition to Snow, the list of Southern Nevadans interviewed by the Brookings researchers included Pat Mulroy, the Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, and former Clark County Manager Thom Reilly. Brian Greenspun, editor of the Las Vegas Sun, is a Brookings trustee.

Reilly said the report is “right on in saying that it’s as much about states working together as it is the feds giving assistance.”

He added that the region’s states “really have no choice” but to cooperate.

“If they don’t do that,” said Reilly, vice president of community reinvestment for Harrah’s, “we will have no hope of getting a handle on some really difficult issues facing us.”

But does the political will exist within the states defined in the report to move beyond their own problems and see the benefits of working together? Moreover, can anyone even ask for such cooperation when the economy is reeling?

Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission — and someone the Brookings Institution talked to for insight — argues that bad times are sometimes the perfect time to seek new solutions.

“When people are struggling, they’re more likely to reach out for something,” said Reid, who is being talked about as a candidate for governor two years before the next election.

The Brookings report, he added, “shines a white-hot light on things we need to do better, and it also speaks to the benefits if we’re willing to think beyond the box.”

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