For as long as he can remember, Phil Cowee has been interested in economic development.
Growing up, Cowee’s mentor was his grandfather, Julius Bunkowski, a developer in Lyon County.
“I would go with my grandpa to title companies, real estate offices and planning commission meetings,” Cowee said. “I just got immersed in economic development from a very young age.”
It laid the groundwork for Cowee, a sixth-generation Nevadan, to follow his grandfather’s footsteps and take a career path developing properties and running businesses in Lyon County.
His latest step? Taking over as executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority, which serves the “Sierra region,” composed of Carson, Douglas, Lyon, Mineral and Storey counties. He replaces Rob Hooper, who retired after 12 years in the role.
“I’m excited and passionate about the opportunity,” said Cowee, who was previously the State Director of USDA Rural Development in Nevada. “There’s the excitement of trying to make a difference. I know that’s kind of cliché, but I really do enjoy economic development. I love to see people prosper and businesses prosper. The more opportunities we can bring to the region, it’s going to be better for everybody.”
With that in mind, the NNBW spoke in length with Cowee about the Sierra region’s rebound from the COVID downturn, economic development opportunities ahead, and the challenges along the way.
Q: Where is the Sierra region at in its recovery from the pandemic downturn?
Cowee: I look at the whole Northern Nevada region, especially the Sierra region, and I think that we’ve come through it fairly well. I think back to 2008-09 when our economy was so heavily dependent on gaming.
I think we’re still dependent on gaming. But if we were like some of our Southern Nevada neighbors, I think we would have had a lot harder time coming through this pandemic. I think when you look at our industrial vacancy and those types of things, it’s very strong. I think right now it’s just a matter of trying to find workers places to live. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges that we have right now.
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Q: On that note, the lack of affordable housing is obviously a growing issue. With economic development agencies like NNDA and EDAWN working to bring business here and develop a workforce, what can they do to work together on the housing challenges in the region?
Cowee: I don’t think it’s going to be an easy solution. Within our Sierra region, we have different areas … if you look at Douglas County compared to Lyon County, they’re all looking for different types of housing. So I think that everybody’s going to have to work together.
I know Lyon County says they don’t want to be a bedroom community for Douglas County and Carson City, but at the same time, I don’t know that politics are going to be in the best interest of Douglas County to have affordable housing. It’s going to be a matter of all the counties working together and come to a solution that benefits the whole area.
Q: What do you attribute to Northern Nevada’s ability to rebound stronger than other areas of the state and country?
Cowee: It really has to do with the diversification of the businesses that were brought in. After the last recession, I think (then) Gov. Sandoval did a great job setting up GOED and giving them the resources that they needed to really go out and recruit different companies that maybe aren’t so dependent on hospitality, so that when you get that downturn, our businesses came through fairly well.
A lot of them even diversified what they were doing. For example, if you were doing plastic moldings, all of a sudden you could build plastic shields. And it also goes to the fact that a lot of our businesses didn’t necessarily have to shut down as well — they were critical, so they were able to keep going.
Q: What industries have the biggest opportunity for growth in the Sierra region?
Cowee: I think there’s going to be a big on-shoring of some of the critical industries. With a supply chain so broken now, especially with computer microchips and things like that, I see a lot of type of industry coming in.
Obviously, manufacturing is huge in our area and I think that’s going to continue. And we have that logistics advantage as well where we can service so many markets. So I think that as companies rebuild a supply chain, Northern Nevada definitely becomes a very good candidate for getting a lot of these businesses.
I think we’re also seeing growth in other industries. With lithium batteries becoming so big, there’s going to be a huge need for recycling, so we’re seeing some of those businesses getting their start here in Northern Nevada, and it’s kind of exciting. Also, mining has been around for a long time, but with these rare minerals and other things that Nevada possesses, I think that that also is going to be an advantage that we’re going to have as well.
And I think one of the opportunities we have is that we bring companies in that maybe pay higher wages and are going to be able to afford some of the housing that’s here. It’s not only going out and recruiting any company, but it’s really trying to recruit those companies that can come in and really take advantage of the workforce that we have and be able to pay higher wages to the workers.
Q: The Victory Logistics District is obviously a large-scale development in Lyon County. What does that project tell you about the growth opportunities in the Fernley area east of Reno-Sparks?
Cowee: That project is very well positioned. Since a lot of that land (east of Reno-Sparks) is sold in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, there are companies looking for other opportunities, and I think Fernley stands to gain a lot by being a little bit outside of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center. And also having Fernley as that economic base and workforce housing so close to it.
Fallon is also getting huge interest in attainable housing for the workforce, so I think that’s only going to help that Victory Logistics center. Seeing them break ground on some speculative buildings is going to be great for not only the city of Fernley but all of Lyon County as that thing continues to grow.
Q: Early in the pandemic, the economic development agencies throughout the state were in constant communication, holding conference calls to talk about recovery and resiliency. Is that still happening?
Cowee: Yeah, those calls still continue to take place. One of the concerns of the state is that we continue to rebound. I think it does, for instance, bring many opportunities for collaboration and the opportunity to try to do what’s good for Northern Nevada. I don’t really care to get the credit as long as we get the companies in here and get the whole economy vibrant.
My goal is really to see the whole area grow — Reno-Sparks, Carson City, Gardnerville, out in Lyon County. The guys up in Reno-Sparks are doing a great job that’s going to pour out to all of us. Same thing if we’re doing a good job, Reno-Sparks is going to benefit. I think we can all benefit from each other’s success.Q: And what are the biggest challenges moving forward?
Cowee: As I talked about earlier, attainable housing for the workforce that needs to move in, I think that’s definitely the biggest challenge. And just having a workforce available. There’s definitely going to be a huge need for not only the workforce that’s here, but I think really trying to get people to take advantage of some of these unfilled jobs and get them up-skilled.
I know WNC right now is working on a trial program to get that up and going. It’ll be neat to see what kind of success they have out of that, and what type of jobs we can get people trained for the future because the future jobs are definitely going to be much different than the jobs that are out there today.
And the shortage of available space is also one of our challenges. A low vacancy rate is good for property owners, but it’s not so good when you’re trying to get a company in. If they have something specific in mind that they want, I think it’s going to be a little bit of a challenge, especially with the higher construction costs.Editor’s Note: This story has been edited lightly for length and clarity.