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Snapshot of rural statistics is tough to develop

John Seelmeyer

As northern Nevada’s booming growth spills into once-rural counties, statistician Brian Bonnenfant struggles to keep up let alone make informed guesses about what’s coming next.

Bonnenfant, the program manager for Geographic Information Services at the University of Nevada, Reno, has a devoted following among developers, bankers and investors who’ve come to rely on his staff for the detailed statistical portraits they prepare of Washoe County.

Whether it’s the number of homes in the development pipeline in Sparks or the history of traffic counts at intersections on Virginia Street, Bonnenfant’s staff often has the answer nearby.

But as callers increasingly want data that will help them make decisions about projects in outlying counties Churchill or Storey, Douglas or Lyon the UNR research team doesn’t have nearly as much to offer.

Not that it comes as much of a surprise to the UNR team.

“We’ve known we’ve got to get regional for a long time,” Brian Bonnenfant said. “We’ve known that this growth was coming since the mid-1990s.”

The challenges, Bonnenfant said a few days ago, are the eternal bugaboos of time and money.

Of the two, time may be the most vexing.

The three staffers and one student who make up the UNR research staff, part of the Nevada Small Business Development Center, pore through reams of publications to prepare their reports.

County assessors’ data is probably the most critical, Bonnenfant said, because it allows the researchers to estimate everything from population growth to the trend of residential sales prices.

But the stacks of paper in the research office include planning commission agendas. Newspaper clippings. Minutes of the meeting from neighborhood advisory groups that often are the first public stop for developers.

More important than the hours the UNR researchers spend reading the material, Bonnenfant said, is the time they invest in building relationships with county officials and convincing them to regularly send along interesting information.

In Washoe County, development of those relationships has taken years. It’s even tougher when researchers need to drive an hour or so for a face-to-face meeting with a rural official who holds the key to an important storehouse of data.

Not that the researchers blame workers in rural county offices. In most instances, Bonnenfant said, they’re so overwhelmed with work these days that feeding the needs of a research team is a low priority.

“They’re in the same boat we are,” he said.

And some counties continue to work with labor-intensive antiquated systems that don’t allow for easy reporting of data.

Money, too, is a problem for the UNR research team as it tries to meet the demand for more data about the fast-growing rural counties.

The Geographic Information Services program is self-supporting, handling research projects under contract for private companies or public agencies and raising a little money through the sale of economic fact books.

The rural governments that might commission some economic studies find themselves strapped by growth-related demands, Bonnenfant said.

“Someone has to come to us and say they want to pay to collect the data,” he said.

Marketing often is an afterthought, however, for researchers who already are stretched thin.

How about more staff? Assuming the money was there, Bonnenfant said, it still takes many months of training to teach a newcomer how to assemble

and interpret the data.