Economic Development, On the Rails

Gov. Brian Sandoval recently spoke before the Keystone Corp., which calls itself “a political action organization for the Nevada Conservative,” of whom there presumably is more than one. His topic was economic development, which he said he considers “a contact sport.”

“If we want to be in the game,” Sandoval said, “we have to have a cutting-edge approach.”

Usually, his approach is just to cut. This time, though, besides relying on regional development groups, he ordered state economic-development director Steven Hill to award grants and threw down a gauntlet: Nevada businesses should create 50,000 new jobs by the end of 2014.

If this is cutting-edge, it doesn’t seem to draw blood. Where are those jobs supposed to come from, and how much would they pay? What would the qualifications be? If Sandoval wants 50,000 new minimum-wage workers, they’re probably not going to spend us back to prosperity.

Nevada’s unemployment rate is 12 percent. That’s the highest in the nation. The rate is 8.5 in New York, 6.5 in Massachusetts, 8.6 in Arizona and 5.8 in Utah. Even California (11) and the supposedly benighted Southern states are doing better than Nevada.

The states that are doing better than Nevada have something else in common: All of them except Wyoming have a higher state tax burden than Nevada, according to the Tax Foundation. Granted, their recessions were less severe in part because they had less of a housing bubble and more civic unity than Nevada. But could it also be that they emphasize education, or public-private partnerships with education? Did they create programs to lure businesses in search of an educated workforce?

What has been lacking in Nevada is truly innovative thinking, as opposed to demands for more money or budget cuts. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican shouldn’t matter. Chances are you are a Nevadan and want our state to do better—and maybe try something new.

So, a crazy thought, courtesy of a friend: a bullet train. Yes, we can have the one to Victorville and presumably improve connections to Southern California. But how about one just for us, north to south? Let’s build a high-speed line that traverses the state.

I know, I know: The route would be more than twice as long as the Vegas-to-Victorville, cost even more and generate a fraction of the ridership. I get that it’s not going to happen, not in this political environment. But let’s look at it as a thought exercise about what it might mean to connect the disparate areas and interests of our fractured Nevada body politic—and to get our communities dreaming big again.

If it goes through Ely, no more ridiculous federal subsidies for that one-gate airport, and tourists might visit the spectacular Nevada Northern Railway Museum and Great Basin National Park. Nevada has magnificent state parks, and others could be developed once folks learn that no dragons loom beyond the gates of Vegas and Reno.

Perhaps the mining industry would help with the costs if the train served it? After all, mining magnates used to build their own railroads to transport their wares. The train could also build bridges—figuratively, not literally. If rural and Northern Nevadans could easily get to Southern Nevada and vice versa, maybe we could find out that we have common interests, such as a better state. Students and faculty at the universities and community colleges could even be involved in planning and construction.

The train might inspire the creation of businesses to cater to those using the train. Education could be more readily available to rural Nevadans, and urban Nevadans could study in rural areas. Doctors are hard to find in small-town Nevada (in some cases they’re hard to find in Las Vegas); wouldn’t it be easier for them to practice in areas that need them if they could get there more easily?

Moral of the story: If we want to be big, we need to think big.

That means more than promising not to cut taxes and asking business to create jobs. It means giving them a reason to create them.