Monday, November 13, 2006

Unique & Diversifying

I visited one of the most uniquely diversified areas of the USA this past week when I flew into Elko, NV (population 16,708) in Elko County, NV, the most northeast county in the state. The county has grown from only 13,958 residents in 1970 to over 45,570 today.

It is also the fifth largest county by size in the continental USA, with 17,179 sq. miles of area. You could fit all of MA, CT, RI and the lower third of NH & VT into the county and still have land left over! There are some wide open spaces out here and it is lovely country with some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen like the Ruby Mountains which attract movie stars to Red’s Ranch from Hollywood who go Heli-skiing there. So far though the area hasn’t “been discovered” by too many people.

The area is a traditional ranching and mining center. Basque sheepherders immigrated here and the three best restaurants in the town are all located on the same street in the downtown area. I ate at two of them. Added color is that one block away are working bordellos, grandfathered into existence.

Nevada is the third largest producer of gold in the world, following only South Africa and Australia, although China is rapidly growing in importance. The 100 mile radius around Elko is the center of that production. The average mining wage in the county is $62,705 and Elaine Barkdull, Executive Director of the Elko County Economic Diversification Authority told me, “My 26 year old son who got an associate degree as an electrician is making over $90,000/year working in the industry.”

The key word in Elaine’s organization is Diversification and we discussed at length the importance of the county’s efforts to diversify their economic base, recognizing the continuing importance of mining but also its natural cyclical behavior. She is developing the Northeastern Nevada Regional Railport and Industrial Park six miles east of Elko, with direct access to both the BN and UP railroads, I-80 (two exits), a 100 acre transloading facility and 700 acres of land for development purposes. One of the targets industry clusters is hard rock mining with the many service and manufacturing companies that are involved in the industry, hoping to develop a global focus as the center for technology and manufacturing expertise. Another recent project of Elaine’s is the development of an industrial park that is heated with geothermal energy, including the parking lots and sidewalks.

The area also has tremendous potential with some of its unique history and in the utilization of its natural beauty sitting at the base of those incredible mountains. Elko was the birthplace of cowboy poetry and will hold its 23rd annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering from January 27 to February 3, 2007. Their National Basque Festival, held the first weekend of July each year, is also a very unique event with its traditional Running From the Bulls through the streets of downtown Elko. Elaine confessed to me, “They are really steers.”

Retirees from CA have started to discover the area and nearby Spring Creek, some buying homes that they don’t plan to occupy for five or more years because of the perceived lower cost of housing compared to CA. Birdwatching, the fastest growing spectator sport in the USA, is an untapped market for Elko. The bird migrations that occur thru the county and having one of only two nesting spots for the Himalayan Snow Cock in the entire world will draw birders from around the world, if promoted and cultivated properly.All in all, it was quite a whirlwind tour full of information and interesting facts that Elaine Barkdull gave me of Elko and Elko County. I’ll be back!

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