By Scott Neuffer, Northern Nevada Business Weekly, January 30, 2024
Storey County Manager Austin Osborne maintains that economic development benefits all counties in western Nevada wherever the development is occurring.
“When economic development happens in any of our counties, all the ships rise with it,” he said. “We all benefit one way or another, directly.”
Osborne was one of five speakers representing rural counties at the Northern Nevada Development Authority’s annual State of the Counties conference Wednesday. Managers of Carson, Storey, Lyon, Douglas and Mineral counties discussed economic strengths and weaknesses of their respective areas and described a common synergy.
Osborne pointed to the success of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in Storey County.
“The (Tesla) Gigafactory alone, when you look at the data, has generated $117 million in (tax) revenue to the Reno-Sparks-Storey County area and to the neighbors,” he said.
Construction for the Tesla factory began in 2014. Osborne said seven years before the arrival of Tesla, Washoe County’s budget was growing by $4.9 million. Seven years after Tesla’s arrival, it was growing by $113 million.
“That doesn’t mean every one of these dollars came from Tesla, but it means that there was economic growth in the area that caused other economic growth to occur,” he said.
With economic growth come challenges: infrastructure, capital improvement needs, workforce housing, transportation, water. For instance, Osborne said it’s difficult to find terrain in mountainous Storey County for housing, and commutes between TRIC and residential areas are long.
“We have retained RCG Economics, again, to perform a $150,000 housing needs assessment for Storey County,” he said, hoping the assessment creates an “overall picture” of where to put employees from TRIC.
The Painted Rock area near TRIC is one option.
“The county commissioners had approved 4,800 homes here in 2006, and since then the project has not quite gotten off the ground,” Osborne said. “And one of the reasons we believe is a major hurdle here — despite it being master planned for residential and zones set up — is water rights for this whole area have been stripped off in the 1990s and 2000s by developers and transferred to Sparks for development in that area, so whoever is showing interest in this area has to get through a hurdle of finding water rights and actual water to be able to serve this area.”
American Flat south of Virginia City, east of Carson City, is another area Storey County is considering for development.
“There’s about 2,000 acres in here that might be eligible to build a housing subdivision,” Osborne said. “It has challenges. It’s BLM. It’s in the Comstock Historic District … One thing that is kind of cool about this is we are working in negotiations to try to get this area included back into the Marlette water system.”
Just south and east of Storey County lies Lyon County, where the challenges of economic development are different, according to County Manager Andrew Haskin.
“Lyon County, historically, has been kind of a bedroom community, especially central Lyon County for the surrounding counties,” Haskin said. “And so we’ve got a lot of housing, we’ve got a lot of workforce, but we don’t have very many businesses.”
Haskin provided a chart showing Lyon County with the lowest revenue-per-capita out of all 17 counties in the state.
“How do you improve revenue-per-capita without raising taxes?” he said. “Well, the biggest thing is economic development.”
Lyon is currently amending land use and development policies to “make them more attractive for businesses, to make things faster.”
“So, one of things we’ve taken a look at in the last year is updating our permit process for building permits,” he said. “We’ve adopted a policy of moving commercial and industrial building applications to the front of the line for building permit review. That speeds up that process quite a bit. Austin (Osborne) mentioned that they can do a building permit in 30 days. Right now, our building department, if you were to submit a complete application, we can get it turned around in about two weeks… so it’s pretty fast.”
Lyon is eyeing more industrial development such as the proposed TRI II in Fernley, a sequel to TRIC. But TRI II would need a federal lands bill to work.
“We’ve been partnering with the city of Fernley on this. They had included it in their lands bill request, and due to some requirements on the Senate side, this has been included on our lands bill as well,” said Haskin. “There’s about 12,000 acres here that would be included in the lands bill to transfer that for the TRI II development.”
Haskin said the industrial park would have a “major impact on Lyon County and the city of Fernley when it gets built.”
South of Lyon County is another small rural county that participated in the event — Mineral County.
“This job, the main goal for me when I took it over, was to figure out how to make Hawthorne (county seat) a destination,” said Kyle Isom, the county’s director of recreation and community development. “We don’t have the infrastructure or the housing to really bring in people to live, but we need to find a way to get people to come there.”
His main vision is to “rebuild existing amenities” and use recreational events to attract tourists. So far, this has entailed softball fields for tournaments, a racecar track, a disc golf course and updated rodeo grounds.
Walker Lake is another big draw for Mineral County.
“Last year was a great year for it,” he said. “It rose 15 vertical feet. It’s the second time in a decade we have had water in the river actually touch the lake.”
Last year’s big winter in the Sierra, feeding the lake, helped the county kick off its inaugural kayak races, Isom said.
“This year, we’re going to move it into our festival that we created called Walker Lake Days,” he said.
Slated for the end of June, the festival will include kayaking, arm wrestling, watermelon-eating contests, volleyball and other events.
Hawthorne is starting a Main Street revitalization project as well. Isom said the town is trying to establish a nonprofit and board of directors.
“We also met with NDOT last week, and they approved our concept of changing the four lanes into … three lanes, with a turn lane up the middle, single-lane traffic, widened parking lanes as well as a bike lane on each side,” Isom said.
Douglas County officials also stressed the benefit of attracting visitors.
“When I talk about the importance of visitors to our community, this is why,” said Douglas County Manager Jenifer Davidson, showing data from Carson Valley Visitors Authority. “Overall, of all the spending that happens in Douglas County, 16 percent of that comes from visitors. A significant proportion of the total dollars spent in Douglas County related to accommodations – which makes sense, hotel nights — but also retail spending, transportation spending, gas and service station spending … comes from our visitors.”
Douglas stretches from Lake Tahoe to Topaz Lake. Davidson said the new Tahoe Blue Events Center, which opened at Stateline in September, has already hosted 74 events and has 124 event days scheduled for this fiscal year.
“They (Tahoe Douglas Visitors Authority) are exceeding financial projections on all fronts,” Davidson said. “This is really wonderful news. I’m not sure you’re aware, but $4 of every ticket sold goes to support transportation services at the lake … Public transportation and transit at the lake are, of course, a very challenging issue, and this is one way that business can be part of the solution.”
Community investment is important for residents, too. Carson City Manager Nancy Paulson discussed population growth in Nevada’s capital city, which serves as a hub for surrounding counties.
“I know many in the community feel like Carson City is growing like crazy; however, population has only increased 3,800 in the last 20 years,” said Paulson. “In 2023, we added about another 600 people. The good news is the estimated maximum population for Carson City at buildout is 76,000, so we’re never going to be a big city, and hopefully we continue to maintain our small-town charm.”
Paulson said despite rising material costs and high interest rates and home prices, residential development in the city is “not slowing down.”
“We issued 519 building permits in 2023,” she reported.
That’s up from 350 permits in 2022.
“Although that is one of the highest years in the last 10 years, 519 permits are still well below what is the maximum number of residential building permit allocations under our growth management plan. The maximum available for 2023 was 750, so we issued a little less than 70 percent of what we would have been allowed to issue.”
Paulson highlighted the 160-unit affording housing project under construction known as Sierra Flats. The city donated land for the project but stipulated the land be used for affordable housing for at least 51 years. The apartments will be available to seniors and low-income families, and Paulson said applications are already in for the first 80 units.
After the managers’ presentations, managers took some questions and chatted with the audience. Osborne said whether it’s affordable housing or transportation, counties can take one piece at a time in the larger goal of economic development.
“Planning ahead — working together as a region — is the critical element,” he said.
For information about NNDA, visit https://nnda.org/.