A tale of two towns

A look at Nevada’s changing demographics as illustrated by Fernley and Battle Mountain

Once again last year, Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the nation. Clark County’s population pushed past the 2 million mark, and Washoe County—with Reno’s 200,000-plus inhabitants—also continued its upward head count.

While some of Nevada’s counties will continue to experience phenomenal growth over the next couple of decades, others will see their populations decline. Both booms and busts will create unique challenges. Two Northern Nevada communities tell the story: Fernley, in rapidly-growing Lyon County, and Battle Mountain, in Lander County, which is projected to lose 15 percent of its residents, the largest percentage in the state.

Forty-some years ago—in the mid-1960s—Fernley was just a sleepy little village with a couple of gas stations, which were there mostly to serve the motorists passing by on the brand-new interstate highway. But beyond getting gas, having the windshield cleaned, and the oil and water checked, there was no reason for travelers to linger in this dusty, desert hamlet.

When LeRoy Goodman began teaching in Fernley in 1965, only about 850 people lived in the town. He taught a multitude of classes at the combined junior-senior high school—everything from American history to physical education to journalism—to seventh graders as well as seniors. “You didn’t have the luxury of five classes of American history,” he says.

There was a post office but no bank. There was a hardware store but no supermarket. “We had a little country store with a butcher shop inside,” Goodman, now a Lyon County commissioner, remembers. “Old Andy Danielson made great sausage. Oh boy, it was wonderful sausage!”

Now—with staggering growth that sent the population soaring past 20,000 last year—there’s a Scolari’s supermarket. Lowe’s opened a home improvement center last October. Wal-Mart will open a new supercenter in March 2008. Fernley, it seems, has come of age.

From Reno, hop on I-80 and head east a ways—that’s 186 miles to city slickers—and there’s Battle Mountain. Today, it has the look and feel that Fernley had in the mid-1970s. Eight years into the 21st century, there still isn’t a supermarket. The closest Raley’s and Wal-Mart are 55 miles to the west in Winnemucca and 70 miles farther east in Elko. Curiously—at least to an outsider from urban Nevada—that suits the good people of Battle Mountain just fine.

“If you asked 10 people in an unscientific poll, I don’t think that you’d find more than one, possibly two, that said Wal-Mart would be a good thing for us,” says Gene Etcheverry, a small-town guy from Ely who has been Lander County’s executive director (the county manager) for the past two years.

“Traveling 50 miles or 120 miles to your nearest Wal-Mart, Home Depot or Lowe’s is part of the culture,” he says. “It’s an event to go to Elko or Winnemucca or Twin Falls to do the shopping that a family likes to do. … It’s actually a form of entertainment.” (Etcheverry thinks nothing of driving 235 miles to Carson City to visit his parents and 235 miles back to Battle Mountain all in one day.)

Unlike Fernley, Battle Mountain isn’t witnessing a population boom. In fact, the number of residents is in a slow but steady decline—to around 2,700 at last count. But at least no one has publicly called the town an armpit recently.

That’s exactly how a writer for the Washington Post described Battle Mountain: “The Armpit of America.” The Dec. 2, 2001, article prompted the creation of T-shirts—"the armpit [is] only five inches from the heart"—and the firing of the editor of the local paper, after she told the reporter from back East that his description of Battle Mountain was accurate. But, most importantly, it sent a message to the community to clean up its act, literally.

Longtime Fernley resident LeRoy Goodman stands outside the Wigwam Restaurant on West Main St.

Photo By Jay Jones

“When you look around the community today—versus six, seven years ago—we’ve got new streets, curbs, gutters and sidewalks,” Etcheverry explains. “We had literally hundreds of derelict and abandoned single-wide mobile homes that have been moved out of the community. They were in terrible condition and just left.

“It looks a lot better. Coming through Battle Mountain, somebody now might get the idea they want to stay. In the past, it was much easier to look at how far it was to the next town. We have a better sense of community pride.”

But, it’s going to take more than a cleanup and some new gutters to reverse the population slide.

A balanced equation
Gene Etcheverry knows what it’s going to take: economic development and diversification. In short, more jobs. He would love to emulate—on a smaller scale—Fernley’s employment boom.

A steady growth of new employers—and not just retail outlets like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart—has been key to Fernley becoming a city unto itself instead of merely a bedroom community of Reno. In fact, as the number of companies setting up shop in Fernley has grown, the number of people making the 32-mile commute into Reno has shrunk.

LeRoy Goodman, who’s not only a county commissioner but also on the Nevada Commission on Economic Development, says Fernley’s economic growth has been gradual, beginning with the arrival of the Nevada Cement Company. It opened in 1965, providing about 80 jobs.

Today, some big name companies operate in Fernley. Amazon.com and Stanley Tools both have distribution centers there. Sherwin-Williams makes paint. Most of the color advertising supplements that are stuffed inside Sunday papers across America are printed at Quebecor’s plant in Fernley.

On Fernley’s east side—yes, it’s now big enough to have an east side—new strip malls are being built. Close to Scolari’s, the Frontier Financial Credit Union recently has opened, as has the Allstate insurance office next door. Around the corner, a sign reads: “Louie’s China Bistro—Coming Soon!” A block farther is the town’s new medical clinic.

There are no such signs of growth and prosperity in Battle Mountain. The restaurants inside the two small casinos on Front Street are just about the only places to get a meal, except for the McDonald’s out by the interstate. Most of the jobs are 20 miles south of town at the Phoenix Mine.

About 500 people work at the Phoenix project, mining copper and gold. About half of them live in Battle Mountain. The others are bused in from Elko and Winnemucca. The wages are excellent—Lander County’s average household income is the second highest in Nevada, behind its gold-rich neighbor, Eureka County—but all of the economic eggs are in just the one basket, mining.

Gold prices soared to a new record high last month—more than $900 an ounce—but as Etcheverry is quick to point out, mining is so “boom or bust” that it’s a risky industry on which to rely as, essentially, the sole source of income for the community. When prices fall—as they always do in the trading of precious metals—Battle Mountain suffers, big time.

“You get it twice,” he explains. “You get hit with less workforce and less population. But you also get hit with less money in your economy because the median family income goes down. It’s really devastating.” That, he says, is why he’s working hard to attract new and different types of businesses to town. He calls it “sustainability.”

Danny Packer, 17, is a senior at Battle Mountain High School. He expects his future to be elsewhere than his hometown.

Photo By Jay Jones

“In order to achieve sustainability, there has to be diversification, so that when the ups and downs come, we’ve still got a sustainable community,” Etcheverry says. “Certainly we’d like to sustain at least at the level we’ve got today.”

To accomplish that, the county’s executive director, who also wears the hat of economic development chief, hopes to capitalize on the town’s transportation resources—the Union Pacific railroad and Interstate 80—just as Fernley has. He says Battle Mountain is ideally situated for warehouses or distribution centers.

“That’s most likely where we’re going to find success in diversification,” he says.

For the time being, though, the Newmont Mining operation remains the only big taxpayer and the only big employer.

Nothin’ to do
“The only thing offered for career opportunity is mining,” laments Danny Packer, a high school senior who has spent his life in Battle Mountain.

Packer, whose father works at the mine, says he plans to move to Reno following graduation to pursue an apprenticeship in carpentry. He doubts he’ll return to his hometown to work.

Even though he describes Battle Mountain as “a good place to raise a family,” the 17-year-old says there isn’t enough construction work in the area to put food on the table.

“There’s not a lot of people asking for custom homes around here,” he says. “Just a lot of double-wides, triple-wides, modular homes. So there’s not really a lot to offer.”

Packer’s low expectations for the town are shared by other students at Battle Mountain High School, who, like him, don’t see their futures here.

“I like it here, but I don’t know if this is where I want to live, not now,” says 17-year-old James Holland, a junior who plans to go to college after finishing high school. “For me, I don’t know if there would be a lot of opportunities.”

April Chee, a senior, wants to study nursing at UNR this fall and echoes the feelings of her peers about Battle Mountain.

“It’s small,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind getting out to someplace bigger. But, if I had to, I could come back.”

Lander County executive director Gene Etcheverry says Battle Mountain has made great improvements since being labeled “the armpit of America” in 2001.

Photo By Jay Jones

It seems as though almost all of the potential future leaders of Battle Mountain want out. Michaela Eason, another senior, was blunt in her assessment: “I don’t want to come back, [except] maybe to visit.”

Managing resources and opportunities
With an apparent exodus looming, it’s easy to understand why the state demographer, Jeff Hardcastle, predicts Lander County’s population will drop by 15 percent, to 4,672, by the year 2026 (see sidebar, this page).

During the same period, Lyon County is expected to nearly double in size. Hardcastle says that, over the next 18 years, he expects the county to grow by 84 percent to 89,916.

Both growth and the lack of it will cause problems for government leaders in Lyon and Lander Counties.

Goodman, the Lyon County commissioner, says an ample supply of water will be critical to future growth, especially in the Dayton area, which, like Fernley, is experiencing a population surge.

Goodman says that, before too long, Fernley will probably need its own hospital. And he says there will be an ever-growing need for additional sheriff’s deputies.

“We’re looking right now at adding a quarter-cent sales tax to fund public safety, but how far can you go with sales tax?” Goodman wonders aloud.

Out in Lander County, Etcheverry says “a 15 percent loss in population and a corresponding loss in the economic flow in our county would concern us greatly.” The county, he adds, already operates on a shoestring budget.

“Lander County has been very prudent over the years,” he says. “We’ve done what we do with as few people, as few personnel countywide as possible.”

The county has only 91 people on the payroll.

“We have to be as efficient as possible,” he says.

Still, Etcheverry isn’t overly worried about the future of this rural Nevada county and its populace of miners and ranchers. He says they’re “getting everything in place” to diversify the economy. He even predicts a jump in the population of Austin, a small burg 90 miles south of Battle Mountain.

“It appeals to adventure tourists,” he says. “People who visit fall in love with Austin.” And, he continues, some of them end up moving to the picturesque mountain village along Highway 50. Downtown is getting a facelift, and home construction has begun in a new subdivision.

“If you wanted to relocate to Austin, you’d be hard-pressed to find a home for sale,” says Etcheverry.

Even if the passing years prove Jeff Hardcastle right, and Lander County continues to lose residents, Etcheverry says that’s not altogether a bad thing.

“I truly believe if you were able to poll most Lander County residents that are here today, a loss of 15 percent in population truly wouldn’t matter,” he says. “A loss of the lifestyle that people enjoy here would matter far more.”