Outgoing NNDA leader reflects on Sierra Region's economic gains

In this 2013 file photo, Rob Hooper, right, executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority, and Gov. Brian Sandoval answer questions on the economic impact of new businesses moving into the state.

In this 2013 file photo, Rob Hooper, right, executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority, and Gov. Brian Sandoval answer questions on the economic impact of new businesses moving into the state.

It might have been a job too much for just one position to manage independently, but when Rob Hooper was asked to accept the challenge of uniting a regional development authority that became a “complete failure,” he took on its leadership with one clear objective in mind.

“We began the long journey of correcting the financial issues of the region economically that would not be about ‘What’s in it for me?’ but lifting up families,” Hooper said about assuming the role of interim executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority in 2009. “It’s about, ‘What’s in it for the community?’ That’s been my approach, and how can we make life better for Northern Nevada, for Sierra Nevada.”

On July 13, NNDA announced Hooper will retire after serving 12 years as CEO; the authority has begun the search for his replacement to ensure a “smooth leadership transition.”

Hooper’s experience as a business leader, executive and consultant, previously working in marketing and sales, is well recognized among the region’s various community experts, public officials and local residents for helping to solve difficult problems when urgent needs arose.

In a recent interview with the Nevada Appeal, Hooper recalled some of the early conversations he had with Mike Skaggs, the previous executive director of the Nevada Commission on Economic Development, about setting up the NNDA — which covers Carson City, Douglas, Lyon, Mineral and Storey counties, an area the authority refers to as the “Sierra Region” — for success in 2009 onward.

Hooper said as one of seven agencies among the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) formed in 2011, the NNDA’s “going got tough” under Gov. Brian Sandoval’s direction at the time.

Hooper recalled Sandoval’s economic development plan challenging state businesses to create 50,000 new jobs by the end of 2014, a strategy he had announced in early 2012, adding “collectively, we reached it.”

“We’d had some good growth prior, but it was sliding down in 2008 when we had the Great Recession,” Hooper said. “The housing debacle, everything came off the skids. It was starting to fall off by 2010 — the economic state in this region, our unemployment rates were amongst the highest in the nation.

“… The fact is you didn’t see any sticks in the air, builders were leaving, developers had closed up shop, there was no construction. It was a mess.”

Over his career, Hooper has worked under three governors, seen Lyon County lift itself up from being one of the poorest counties in the nation with an unemployment rate of at least 20% more than a decade ago, and witnessed the slowing of developers leaving the state because the promise of business and residential development gradually has returned.

NAI Alliance commercial real estate broker Brad Bonkowski recalls Hooper’s recruitment.

In February 2009, Bonkowski said he and his partner Andie Wilson had been working among the GOED’s regional development authorities, chief among these being the NNDA under its previous CEOs.

Bonkowski recounted having lunch with Bill Miles of Miles Construction and fellow real estate agent Bruce Robertson when former CEO Ron Weisinger announced his departure from the NNDA. The discussion centered on finding a suitable replacement who could take on the task of turning the region around, and Carson City became the hub for bringing everyone together locally, he noted.

“Carson’s very fortunate it’s a center of the Sierra Region, we’re the largest urban area, we have a population of 60,000,” Bonkowski said. “So, it allowed us to be the leader and reach out to the other counties and find out what they needed or what had been successful or had been tried and hadn’t been successful.”

And once Hooper began his work, he said a new “synergy” was stirred by which employers and employees were willing to offer an hour or two for interacting.

“He was very inclusive,” Bonkowski said of Hooper. “He created several working committees and brought in several players from different industries, from real estate, from utilities and other economic development agencies from GOED and banking committees and … brought them so everybody had a voice and had a process.

“There was very good communication, and everyone contributed in working toward the same goal, which hadn’t happened previously.”

Through new partnerships and meetings, Bonkowski said, collaborations began with employers to identify career and educational opportunities with Western Nevada College and other community partners through incentives and work programs that empowered the region to become a “favorite destination” among companies.

“We knew what companies were looking for out in the community,” Bonkowski said. “He created the Pioneer Awards, which recognized businesses in the region that had contributed to economic development or were lifetime cheerleaders for economic development or were really great businesspeople that had contributed to the economy.”

WNC President Vincent Solis had worked with Hooper, who eventually came to chair the college’s Institutional Advisory Council, for about three years. The IAC, along with other business representatives and educators, has worked to provide guidance for workforce education in the Sierra Region.

“Rob Hooper has been a friend, professional colleague and an extremely committed partner to WNC,” Solis said. “We are happy for Rob, and we wish him the very best in his retirement. We are, however, saddened to see him leave his post as he has been a tremendous ally and ambassador for WNC. We will miss him dearly and we know the future is bright for Rob in all he endeavors to do.

“Others may follow in his footsteps, but his shoes will never be filled."

Today, the NNDA, helping 116 companies with relocation, expansion and industrial vacancy reduction from 26% to 3% since 2010, has concentrated on sector growth in Carson City and Douglas, Lyon, Mineral and Storey counties since 2010, a move significantly improving quality of life for residents and business owners.

It’s a move that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Lyon County, where several projects have transpired in the past decade and beyond.

Firms have expanded into Lyon, such as Cosmetic Enterprises, which added a plant in Dayton in 2016. Real estate firm Mark IV Capital of Newport Beach, Calif., in 2019 purchased the 4,300-acre Victory Logistics District site in Fernley, with construction beginning in April on the sprawling project’s first building, an 815,000-square-foot speculative warehouse. And in late 2020, Los Angeles-based developer Industrial Realty Group acquired the 224-acre Western Nevada Rail Park east of Fernley, touting plans to construct a major railroad freight operations site.

Other companies, said county manager Jeff Page said, have also sprung up, including Webstaurant and Silver Springs’ Bonnie Plants. Smaller businesses in Mound House also are making their presence, Page said.

“The thing NNDA does real well is find those companies in each community versus a cookie-cutter approach,” Page said. “…Whether bringing new business into a community, he was instrumental in working with the county managers to realize that if Carson got a new business because of NNDA, the positive impacts for the region were jobs.”

What didn’t work well in Washoe or Douglas counties, notes Hooper, worked better, perhaps, for Lyon or Mineral.

“Keeping the region as a region to work together as a region has been the hardest part of my job, and it’s not
 anybody doing the wrong thing,” he acknowledged. “Priorities and needs in Hawthorne, in Minden, in Fernley – how do you get all those subregions and all the businesses and political components to go in similar directions and work together? That’s something I focused right from the beginning.

“I saw we had silos and we needed better communication and participation.”

He began holding Quad County manager meetings, which continue today, he said. He hasn’t attended for some time now since they go “past me,” but added his momentum with the region’s commercial success has picked up gradually throughout the years.

Northern Nevada’s challenges with growth, infrastructure, attracting skilled workers and “creating the right environment” to help the five counties go from “famine to feast” have included reaching out to the local tribal and Latino communities, creating support through the Community Developing Block Grant program for the Walker River corridor in Yerington and Hawthorne — or other projects such as waste treatment plants or even simply renaming the region the “Sierra Region,” he said, reflecting on a discussion with Carson City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ronni Hannaman about needing a “big and warm” inclusive name.

“We’ve been able to get an identity and fight to keep that identity,” Hooper said.

Above all else, personal relationships came first to Hooper in doing his job, among some of the most important over the years have come down to longtime friend Page in Lyon County, Sandoval during his time in office or to others in GOED.

“Jeff is like my brother,” he said. “He’s fantastic. We don’t always agree, but what a great guy.”

He also recalled his travels to Dublin, Ireland, with Sandoval when they ventured to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“We wanted to go to St. Paul’s for morning mass and we got into the little chapel in the main cathedral and there was Gov. Sandoval and we got to do the eucharist,” he said. “Those are the kinds of experiences I remember. It’s being a part of a statewide team and working with (GOED deputy directors) Bob Potts and Kris Sanchez, (executive director) Michael Brown, which, sometimes contrary to popular belief, they’re trying to do the right thing. It’s truly rewarding.”

Page called Hooper “a man of faith,” commending his ability to see the bigger picture as a leader in the region and willingness to approach difficult or uncomfortable tasks at hand.

“He’s not embarrassed by his faith; he always asks to pray, and I’d say, ‘No, go ahead,’” Page said. “He’s always open and honest with me. Not every conversation has been easy. He’s yelled at me. I’ve yelled at him. But we’ve been able to work together all these years. He’s a workmate, and I consider him a true, dear friend.”

Hooper also considers himself fortunate to have worked with the community during the past 12 years and says fresh ideas and muscle power are beneficial for everyone at this time.

“I would tell (the new candidate) to work with the counties, to stay in alignment with the state and help the outside world to keep going and to always be uplifting the families and to have that be the goal,” he said.

Now that he’s leaving behind such a large footprint on the region, Hooper said with a chuckle it’s a “bittersweet process” to give up the constant, rewarding investments he’s made bringing everyone together but said he looks forward to whatever comes next.

“I’m certainly not going to be hanging a fishing pole in the water,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good time for me to move forward. But I’ll be available.”


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