Continued economic growth needs community to solve challenges | nnbw.com

Continued economic growth needs community to solve challenges

Northwestern Nevada has enjoyed a few years of active economic growth, but challenges remain that if not overcome, could derail the economic engine.

Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), described the challenges to an audience gathered Jan. 26 for EDAWN's Community Economic Update luncheon at the Peppermill Resort Hotel.

It will take a community effort to overcome a shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing; develop and attract a skilled workforce; and to rebrand Reno's image, he told the NNBW in an interview prior the luncheon.

Last year the top concern was the state of schools in Washoe County. A long-term shortage of funds for infrastructure resulted in delayed repairs and severe overcrowding.

"The community rallied and we passed WC-1," he said regarding the county ballot question that raised the sales tax 0.54 percent to pay for school infrastructure.

With schools at least on the right track to deal with building issues, Kazmierski sees attracting and training a workforce with the skills for the new jobs coming to the area as the top concern. However, attracting people and companies to the area is heavily influenced by the availability of housing and the image people across the country have of Reno.

"At some point, (new) jobs will stop coming if we can't attract people," he said.

Many outside the area, who haven't experienced our snow-covered mountain and recreational opportunities, picture Reno as a dump, he said.

Recently, a story in the New York Times said, "Reno stirs images of worn-out casinos, strip clubs and quick divorces." In addition, comedian Amy Schumer said, Reno "is the worst place to spend the weekend … because it's a dump."

Having strip clubs as part of downtown and taxi-top advertising promoting such places adds to the image problem.

"Every other community has a red-light district," Kazmierski said. "We have a red-light downtown."

While city leaders work to create ordinances to control what can and can't occupy downtown, everyone can have a hand in changing the image of the area.

Including students. The EDAWN Foundation recently conducted a competition among the schools to design taxi-tops to promote the attractive aspects of the area. (see Washoe students create new taxi-top designs, page A12).

In addition individuals can write about and share photos depicting what they love about the region — the beauty, the recreation, dining, events, arts, etc. — on Facebook and other social media platforms, Kazmierski said.

"We need more communication about the new Reno."

Even if people realize the great things about the region, if housing isn't available, there's no room for individuals and companies to relocate here.

Every year the gap between housing needs and construction of housing units widens, Kazmierski said.

Before the recession, for every job added, 0.8 houses were constructed, he said.

Almost 3,000 housing units were built in 2016. Even if we build 25 percent more each year, in four years we will still behind by 20,000 units.

"We're falling behind by 5,000 per year," he said.

Affordable housing is particularly challenging. The vacancy rate for apartment units is currently running at 2 percent, which is effectively full.

Construction of single family homes in the $250,000-$350,000 range, which is most needed, costs the same in fees and overhead as construction for $600,000 to $1 million homes, reducing the incentive to build affordable homes.

"Housing is a priority and we need to get on it, like how we did with schools," Kazmierski said.

More housing is needed because more workers are needed.

Unemployment has been on a steady decline since the recession. In December, the unemployment rate for Reno/Sparks was 4.2 percent.

"We run out of people when we cross that (4 percent) line and we're about to cross that line," Kazmierski said.

There will always be those who don't want to see the community grow.

"You only need to look back to five years ago to what no-growth is like," he said.

"If we don't get people here, we're going to stall out" economically.

Despite what sometimes seems like an strong economy, the community faces challenges to keep it running.

"We have our challenges like every community does," Kazmierski said. "So far (we've) taken them on and fixed them.

"I think we can do it."