Las Vegas Sun

September 2, 2014

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STATE OF THE STATE:

Nevada turns 144, but what’s to celebrate?

With the governor accused of assault and the economy in shambles, these are dark days indeed for the state

3 OF NEVADA’S NAGGING WORRIES

GIBBONS’ ISSUES

The governor has had a lot of headaches with budget cuts and revelations of prolific text messaging, in addition to his highly publicized divorce and Chrissy Mazzeo’s accusations of assault.

GAMING WOES

Revenue from gambling has fallen consistently this year. Boyd Gaming halted construction of Echelon. Meanwhile, MGM Mirage needed a cash infusion from Dubai.

FORECLOSURES

As the state and nation’s unemployment rates jumped steadily this year, the avalanche of foreclosures here continued. Worse, elderly in state-supported nursing homes may be forced out.

Happy birthday, Nevada.

Today marks 144 years since Nevada became a state, on Oct. 31, 1864.

Yet residents could be forgiven if they’re not in the mood for celebrating this Nevada Day. These are dark times for the Silver State.

Our state’s economy is, by one analysis, the worst in the nation. We lead the country in foreclosures. We have the fifth-highest unemployment rate. Our signature industry, which some claimed was recession resistant, is in the tank. And our governor, in his latest embarrassing headline, is again defending himself against allegations he tried to rape a future constituent during his campaign.

Nevada is in a funk, bordering on depression.

How about a side of Prozac with that birthday cake?

There will still be a parade on Saturday in Carson City, with families lining the main street to see Miss Pahrump, Gov. Jim Gibbons and other dignitaries ride by on a floats. There will be a chili feed and old-time beard contest, in which Virginia City hopes to recapture the title of state’s best facial hair.

Yet this year the traditional celebrations feel like mere distractions.

“We can celebrate the past, but certainly not the present. And the future is doubtful,” said Guy Rocha, the state archivist and a widely respected historian.

To size up how far we’ve tumbled, consider that a few short years ago Nevada was the nation’s fast-growing, an economic beacon on a hill. A low-tax libertarian paradise (gambling! legal prostitution! jobs!).

From 2004 to 2006, our home values exploded. Sure we still ranked poorly on lists rating the quality of education and health care. But people voted with their moving trucks, and we led the nation in growth.

Jobs were plentiful. Tourists toked waitresses and dealers into prosperity, and casino companies raked in record profits. Cranes building the next generation of Las Vegas grandeur became symbols of a city reaching for the future.

But this year, the cranes slowed. The Echelon resort lurched to a halt in mid-construction. MGM Mirage needed a cash infusion from Dubai. In September, unemployment rates made the third-largest jump in the nation. The avalanche of foreclosures continued.

The state’s safety net, strained in the best of times, now faces steep budget cuts. There’s serious talk of mentally disabled people on state support being kicked out of group homes, and low-income elderly people being forced from nursing homes.

It’s enough to give the most ardent cheerleaders pause.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman still goes on about the redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas — which includes an Alzheimer’s institute and performing arts center. But asked recently if that optimism extended beyond city limits, Goodman said, “Oh, no. I think the state is in the toilet.”

Richard Bryan, who was governor from 1983 to 1989, then a U.S. senator until 2001, acknowledged these are tough times for Nevada.

“This is an experience which Nevadans have not known before,” he said. “In previous economic downturns, since World War II at least, we were the last impacted and the first to recover.”

But he, and others, continue to see reason for hope.

Jeremy Aguero, a principal with the financial firm Applied Analysis, said population growth has slowed to an estimated 1 percent to 1.5 percent. But, he noted, the state added 60,000 jobs a year in 2004 and 2005. “As of now, we’ve only given back 10,000 jobs,” he said.

Eugene Moehring, a UNLV history professor who has written extensively on the history of Las Vegas, ticked off reasons for Nevada to be optimistic. Universities are attracting research grants. Downtown redevelopment and gentrification are progressing. And Nevada, with its abundant sun, could be poised to become a leader in alternative energy.

“If you look at Nevada’s history, we always have cycles,” Moehring said. “Each time, we come out of it bigger and better.”

Some see hope in the state’s relatively small population.

Nevada is still small enough that residents with “talent and energy” can make a difference, Bryan said.

“There are enormous opportunities. We’re still small enough, welcoming enough, for people come to Nevada and rise to the top,” he said.

Because of its small population, government is still accessible, said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

Smith was in Carson City recently as Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley held a public meeting to highlight the state’s fiscal troubles. Although the presentation was “depressing,” Smith noted that anyone in attendance could have addressed directly the leader of the state Assembly. And that gave him hope.

“It’s still small enough people can go to events and feel like they can still shape the future of the state,” he said.

So while it feels like there’s not a lot to celebrate this Nevada Day, Smith sees hope in residents’ ability to shape their future — a belief that defined the Silver State’s founders.

“We were founded by people who were self-sufficient, independent, willing to take risks to settle it, make it a state, to have a successful economy.

“I think that spirit is still alive,” Smith said. “Other than that, we’re in the crapper.”

Sun reporter Alex Richards contributed to this story.

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