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This feature first appeared in the Fourth Quarter 2012 Issue of Lincoln County Magazine.  Subscribe today to make sure you receive the First Quarter 2013 Issue.

Painting of four individuals at a crossroads in the desert.Illustration by Heidi Leavitt

By Ben Rowley

We gather.

Funny thing to say, but it is a good way to describe Lincoln County. We gather as families and friends. We gather to sporting events, concerts, plays, and celebrations. We gather in religious congregations, for service projects, and civic meetings. We gather in the hills for hiking, hunting, camping, and off-roading.

This is a defining characteristic that makes living here so enjoyable.

Many make significant sacrifices to live here. Some commute long distances for work, while others take jobs with lower pay. The U.S. Census reports that the median household income for Lincoln County is about $10,000 a year less than Nevada’s average.

Housing is difficult to find here as well. Many families are in non-ideal housing situations while they wait for something to come on the market or try to scrape up enough money to build.

There are also those who desire to live in Lincoln County but don’t because of the scarcity of jobs and available housing. According to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation, our top four employers are local or state government organizations, which have limited job openings.

Our private sector economy is small to say the least. Lincoln County is home to 94 private-sector establishments, which employ 619 people, according to Census data. Many of those that have the guts to open up shop here often struggle. Retail sales per capita here is under $7,000 compared to a $14,500 average statewide.

The recession hit us hard. As state and local budgets tightened, the school district and county government struggled to avoid layoffs and certainly had less money to contract work to private business. Folks also tightened their belts and had less money to spend in our stores. Our September unemployment rate of 11.6 percent is stubbornly high.

“We’ve had several people that worked in Las Vegas in construction jobs and other things that have individually been impacted,” County Commissioner Paul Mathews said. “But also the smaller businesses, they’ve really struggled or gone out of business because of the recession.”

This has placed Lincoln County at somewhat of a holding pattern.

“I think a lot of the more entrepreneurial business people are trying to play with their newly dealt hand and look still for opportunities on how to spend their resources to build something,” Mathews said. “I think right now they’re cautious to hesitant.”

Few would blame them, but something has to give in order to get more capital flowing through our communities. Someone has to make the first move, and there are opportunities.

Big Players

There are multimillion dollar projects in the works that could affect us greatly.

Coyote Springs is under new ownership that is continuing prepartions to build the master-planned community. Most doubt home construction will begin until the Vegas housing market more fully recovers, but few doubt the impact this development will have on Lincoln County in terms of jobs, access to businesses, access to power, and tax dollars.

“I do think that sooner or later they’re going to do something,” County Commissioner Ed Higbee said.

Also in the works is a new power plant on the Toquop property near Mesquite. The Mesquite Citizen Journal reported in late September that EWP Renewable Corporation of San Diego has plans to build a natural gas plant on the property.

“We had a company for a long time that was looking into it, but backed out here on us,” said County Commissioner Paul Donohue. He added that EWP seems pretty excited about the project. Peter Sawicki, Director of Business Development for EWP, told the Citizen Journal they are looking at 12 to 18 months before they can begin building the plant.

Donohue expects most the jobs to go to the Mesquite area, but the plant will help the county in terms of tax revenue. “It would benefit our schools and take some pressure off of our general fund that we struggle with,” he said.

Another big player is the Nevada National Security Site, according to Higbee. Also known as the Nevada Test Site and the inspiration behind alien-themed businesses and highways, this federal installation continues to grow. Higbee sees future opportunities for more jobs and alliances there.

Mining is also coming back into play. With gold prices as high as they are, mining companies are taking another look at the mineral resources in the northern end of the county. This includes the Atlanta Mine near Pioche. “That looks very promising in the next ten years,” Mathews said.

“The red tape on it is ridiculously hard,” Higbee said. “But if they could get it up and running it would be a great help to Lincoln County.”

As the years of regulatory hurdles are cleared, let’s hope gold prices stay high.

Land A-Plenty, Sort Of

Yes, Lincoln County has a lot of land, well over 6 million acres. But a good 95 percent of it is owned by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency that has seldom been considered a friend to Lincoln County prosperity. However, there has been better cooperation between the BLM and local officials in recent years.

The County Commissioners are in negotiations with the bureau to release land to private bidders in specific, smaller parcels identified for development. Historically, the BLM tends to release large tracts of land to bid for developers, which our representatives are trying to avoid.

The commissioners are attempting to incorporate different aspects of business into the land acquisitions, Mathews said, “where we’re not just releasing [land] for housing, but we’re trying to plan and look at all the possibilities for other things to be built.”

The trick is not releasing so much land that the market become flooded and current property owners’ property values go down, Mathews added.

There are still hurdles to clear in the negotiations, but meetings are ongoing. “We’ve got some active stuff on the table with them where we’re trying to move some of those smaller parcels of land around communities,” Mathews said.

Another hurdle is convincing the BLM to sell the land at the bottom of the real estate market. A low price of course means less revenue for the BLM. But Higbee hopes they will sell anyway for the good of local residents. “I want it to sell cheap for the simple reason that I would like to get it in private peoples’ hands,” he said. “Then you have an opportunity to do something.”

There already are private parcels available for sale, but there is a major problem of coming up with the money to bring power, sewer, and water to the sites. Currently, the county and utility companies require a developer to absorb the bill for these necessities, which costs tens of thousands of dollars.

“It’s a terrible hurdle,” Higbee said.

Even at the Meadow Valley and Alamo industrial parks, which are designed to attract new industry to Lincoln County, a potential developer would need to pay for power, sewer, and water lines. With options in other areas that already have those features, it becomes difficult to attract businesses.

The county will have to find the dollars somehow to build that infrastructure in order to make Lincoln County attractive, according to Higbee.

“If you had sewer, water, and power, I guarantee you, if you played your cards right, you could get some businesses to move in there,” he said. “That’s a hurdle that we have to climb.”

Local Governments Promoting Growth

We’re all acutely aware of the national political landscape with deeply divided politicians trying to avoid a “fiscal cliff”.

“I think nationally there’s still a lot of questions in business peoples’ minds because of some of the new policies that are yet to be implemented, such as the Obamacare act and other things,” Mathews said.

But the commissioner was happier with the efforts of state and county governments.

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature created the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which focuses on diversifying Nevada’s economy and “promotes a robust, diversified and prosperous economy in Nevada.”

“I think on the state level, they’ve tried to be very creative in trying to get businesses to grow again,” Mathews said.

In regards to local government, Mathews added that work has been done to streamline operations, cutting down on the red tape businesses deal with.

Commissioner Higbee added that Lincoln County’s regulations are pretty good compared to other counties. “I’ve talked to other developers that come from different areas, and they say we don’t have a lot of red tape,” he said.

Connected to a World Economy

“I work for the telephone company,” Donohue said. “I’m extremely proud of the fact that we have high-speed Internet here. We can provide people with just about any speed they want.”

These tools can open up new markets and revenue streams for our businesses.

People Still Gotta Eat

“If nothing else we have the same old standby that we’ve always had, which is agriculture,” Higbee said.

As long as people eat, there will be a need for farming and ranching. We are not the Midwest, but Lincoln County has springs that feed fertile agriculture land – much of which has remained family-owned for generations. The county also has significant cattle operations with herds of cows grazing on mostly federal-owned land throughout the county.

Food prices continue to rise and the world population continues to grow. So is it possible to make a good living in agriculture in Lincoln County?

“Being one of those that’s trying awful hard to do that, yeah I think it is,” Mathews said, adding that the price structure for agriculture is very good right now.

The question is whether it is possible to open up new land and water for farming and ranching.

“We are in a closed basin,” Higbee said. “You couldn’t drill a well to farm on one of these benches.”

“Trying to get the land and water coordinated together is increasingly more difficult,” Mathews said. He doesn’t think it’s impossible, but it will require putting pressure on those that control the water to make it a priority to use for agriculture.

One concern Donohue has for our ranchers is the threat of the sage grouse becoming an endangered species. The animal is described as a wild chicken, and it populates many range lands in the county.

If the federal government does classify the sage grouse as an endangered species it would “extremely have a horrible impact on cattlemen,” Donohue said.

The BLM also threatens to bring more of the desert tortoises they have near Red Rock Canyon in Clark County to Lincoln County, something Donohue wants to avoid.

“We don’t have a lot of economics here, and the cattlemen have been part of the economics for a long time,” he said. “I think it’s important that we protect them.”

So where do we go?

There are as many uncertainties as there are opportunities. The only thing we really know for sure is that Lincoln County is a good place to gather.

Keeping it that way will require us to make our choices, despite the uncertainties and risks, and move forward.

“I think what’s really critical is that we don’t quit,” Donohue said and added that we should do our best to support the businesses we already have.

In order for us to keep the residents that are here and bring back many of our children who want to raise their children here, one, some, or even all of the opportunities before us will need to come to fruition.

“You young [people], we gotta get you here,” Donohue said. “And us old dogs, we gotta just keep fighting.”

Subscribe to Lincoln County Magazine Today!

This feature first appeared in the Fourth Quarter 2012 Issue of Lincoln County Magazine.  Subscribe today to make sure you receive the First Quarter 2013 Issue.