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US Population Shift Part 2:  Nevada - 2002-03-24

More than 80% of Nevada is owned by the U.S. government, and much of the rest of it is mountain wilderness or the inhospitable Mohave desert. Yet this western state led the nation in population growth in the last decade, increasing by 66 percent... and that trend continued into the 21st century, as the state added some 200,000 people last year. In our second look at the U.S. population shift, Flo Rogers reports from Las Vegas.

The world-famous Las Vegas strip, crowded with hotels and casinos, is being encircled by sprawling housing developments. Summerlin is the largest so far. Tom Warden, its Vice President of Marketing, says it's home to more than 60,000 people. "The Summerlin community is unfolding in the Las Vegas Valley, we look down on what everyone knows as the Strip. If you ask me how many people live here now, I can't answer because it's changing minute to minute. We have a new family moving in every two hours, around the clock," he says.

Mountains to the south, east and west will limit growth in the Las Vegas Valley, but the federal government is gradually selling its land north of Las Vegas to accommodate a seemingly insatiable demand to put houses, shopping malls and roads over the Mohave Desert.

According to Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, nearly 69% percent of the state's population now lives in Clark County, surrounding the gambling capital. "The State of Nevada has 2 major metropolitan areas, Reno and Las Vegas. Both have been growing but it's been Clark County that has had the greatest growth. In 1990, we had 770,000 people. In 2000, 1.4 million, so it nearly doubled in the last decade," he says.

The engine behind that population boom is the gambling industry. In the late 1980's, casino operators convinced Wall Street that Las Vegas was a legitimate investment. Financing became available to build hotel-casinos on a scale never before seen, creating unprecedented numbers of construction jobs. "Roughly speaking, there are 127,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas. That gives you some idea of the magnitude of the tourist industry," says Mr. Schwer. As each new "mega" resort opened, thousands of additional jobs were created. "We would expect about 1.5 jobs per room. 3,000 rooms (per resort) have been the norm recently. And there are other indirect jobs in the community, every one job in a hotel will create an additional one elsewhere in the community. 3,000 rooms could result in about 9,000 jobs created in the community.

And those jobs pay well. Nevada's construction and tourism industries are strongly unionized. Semi-skilled and even unskilled workers earn wages that allow them to buy their own homes and send their kids to college.

Of course, before they get to college, those kids have to go to elementary and high school making Clark County, Nevada the 6th largest school district in the nation. Pat Nelson, the District Communications Coordinator, says enrollment goes up every year. "In a typical year, we gain 14,000 new students, and I think that's larger than some whole districts. We build 12-14 new schools a year, hire 1300 new employees every year and every year we're looking for teachers."

Jobs are the primary reason for Nevada's population boom. Climate, recreation and a moderate cost of living are other incentives. But traffic congestion is an unwanted by-product of the state's rapid growth, and Nevada's Regional Transportation Commission is building a ten-lane highway to keep things moving around Las Vegas. Jacob Snow is the General Manager. "We've been attempting to pave our way out of congestion," he says. "Gridlock, we can't afford to gridlock southern Nevada - it'll cripple the economy of the entire state. If we continue to face the problems of growing traffic congestion, that'll mean deterioration in air quality, and that's something we can't allow to happen."

Since the last census was taken in 2000, the nation-wide recession has put the brakes on Nevada's runaway growth. But the University's Keith Schwer says he expects to see population numbers continue to climb in the next ten years. "We're anticipating that Clark County will rise to 1.9 million, from the 1.4 million in 2000. The state of Nevada should grow to 2.7 million, and will remain the fastest growing state in the next decade," he says. "All indications point that direction."

When those new residents arrive, many will live in Summerlin - in the next ten years the developers expect to build another 35,000 houses and apartments.