Spotlight on Sustainability: Building a more resilient Southern Nevada

Photo via Flickr user jopoe

Southern Nevada is addressing its regional challenges and planning for a more economically resilient future thanks to a Regional Planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Clark County, home to the Las Vegas metropolitan area, was particularly hard hit by the recession. With an economy based in tourism, entertainment, and construction, the nation’s economic issues were magnified in Southern Nevada where crucial external investments dramatically slowed and the region’s lack of economic diversity left the area overly vulnerable to the national economic downturn. Regional unemployment reached 14% at the recession’s peak, while housing values declined 65% – compared to 35% nationally. As the region climbs out of the recession, a HUD Regional Planning grant awarded in 2011 is helping to bolster Southern Nevada’s economic resilience to ensure the region’s communities are better protected.

Southern Nevada Strong is a local effort to plan for a more diverse regional economy and improve local education capacity. The project’s large coalition is conducting an economic analysis and developing a regional plan with the intent to better integrate transportation, jobs, and housing. The project is a unique effort for the Southern Nevada region, as the need for regional planning was never present in their previous consistently thriving economy.

Southern Nevada Strong project manager Lisa Corrado spoke of the regional hurdles the grant had to address, “When you’re a tourist economy, you’re putting the money into the strip and the airport, but what does that mean for amenities for residents?” Southern Nevada Strong is striving to bring a new focus to local residents who live in a region nationally perceived as a destination spot. The concept of regional planning is slightly foreign to Southern Nevada, as Corrado went on to say, “It’s challenging enough to change the culture to be proactive.”

The project’s economic analysis focuses on the means for Southern Nevada to diversify and strengthen its economy by attracting new business. With the county’s eye historically turned towards tourism and construction, there was little space in the regional narrative to consider quality of life or the desire to raise a family. The project’s consortium has analyzed communities and corridors across the Las Vegas metropolitan area to determine where and how to support local economic diversification. The analysis has found a local need for investment in healthcare and transportation, as well as an opportunity to attract tech businesses.

Using public service outreach tools in conjunction with spatial and economic analyses, Southern Nevada Strong is identifying which areas can do the most to diversify the economy. Lisa Corrado spoke of why the project prioritizes an economic analysis initially over regional planning, saying “It doesn’t matter if you have a land use plan if you don’t have the job market to support it. We found areas that could benefit from integrating jobs, transportation, and housing.” Southern Nevada has only 60% of the needed healthcare professionals for the area’s population. By finding ways to strategically invest in healthcare capacities, the project’s coalition hopes to foster new economic opportunities as well as improve public health. Attracting large tech companies is another opportunity identified in the project’s analysis, as the regional climate and geography also make Southern Nevada an ideal location to house major data warehouses.

While new businesses and markets will improve local economic resilience, Southern Nevada Strong recognizes that economic diversification cannot be successful without a supporting infrastructure. Therefore, of equal importance in the project’s analysis, is the need to create infrastructure to facilitate a more diverse economy. Partnering with Brown University and University of Nevada – Las Vegas, students are conducting ethnographic analyses as part of the project. Through field analysis and stakeholder interviews, the project will identify the main obstacles to transportation and housing for local residents. Using the results of these analyses, Southern Nevada Strong is ensuring that equity issues are infused in future planning.

Before the recession, Clark County residents could find success in its local tourism and gambling economy. Jobs that required minimal education were financially attractive options for the local population. Lisa Corrado spoke of the impacts this type of economy had on the region, “There was almost no need for an education, you could make a decent life with minimal education.” The recession effectively removed these jobs from Southern Nevada’s economy. Education suddenly became more necessary than ever. Ranked last nationally in educational performance, the region has serious hurdles to overcome. Southern Nevada Strong is asking the question, “What can we do from a community development stand point to improve education?” The project’s partners believe that the physical and social environment is of at least equal importance to a student’s education as the educational material itself. Therefore, Southern Nevada Strong has connected its education efforts with the larger regional push for economic diversity. Students will have to be prepared to take on the opportunities brought in by new markets and businesses. By developing communities that foster a need for education, Southern Nevada Strong hopes it is building a more resilient regional future.

Southern Nevada Strong’s HUD Regional Planning Grant is a part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Partnership has allocated more than $4 million for communities across the United States, improving local economies and environments. The Partnership works with communities to create more housing and transportation choices, and support neighborhoods’ sustained vibrancy by attracting new business. When asked if any of Southern Nevada’s work would have been possible without the regional planning grant, Lisa Corrado responded, “None of it would even be brought up if it weren’t for this resource and it’s tools.” As Congress considers programmatic funding, it’s up to us to make sure these programs continue. Community development projects are a worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars, and yield economic returns for businesses, communities and taxpayers alike. Tell Congress to fund these programs today.