LAS VEGAS -- The collapse of the housing bubble hit Nevada harder than just about any other place in the country. Tens of thousands of jobs vanished, 100,000 families lost their homes, and we're not out of it yet.
For more than 20 years, Nevada led the nation in growth and we pretended it could go on forever. Everyone was making so much money that state leaders looked the other way at some pretty glaring problems.
In the end, people at the top made huge profits and people lower down lost everything. Nevada leaders love to talk about diversifying the economy. They also love to study it -- studies go as far back as Governor Bob List, who served as governor from 1979 to 1983.
They are ideas for broadening the base -- studies that were then stuck on a shelf to gather dust. Forests of trees died to publish those studies, but are we any closer to knowing what we want to be when we grow up?
For 15 years, economist Jeremy Aguero has been the go-to guy when it comes to Nevada economic issues. He has studied where we have been and where we are going, but admits we could not design a new economy if we wanted to. It happens organically.
"The Las Vegas of today is not the Las Vegas that existed in the 80's or 90's. Frankly, it isn't even the same Las Vegas that existed before this recession began. It has constantly been working to transform itself," said Aguero. "As much as we think we can guide it or direct it and change it, it happens. It happens because investments come in, creative thinkers come along."
No state knows more about the aftermath of booms and busts than Nevada. The landscape is littered with the ghosts of boom towns that went bust. Las Vegas has turned reinvention into an art form. But are things different this time? Was the financial holocaust caused by the collapse of the housing market enough to move the discussion beyond lip service?
"That is the intent of the effort to diversify the economy. So if there is a recession in the future, Nevada isn't so vulnerable," said Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval.
Sandoval is taking big steps toward doing what has been talked about for so long. He has put diversification front and center. Nevada had always been recession proof, until the housing collapse, but we were ripe for disaster since so many of our eggs were in the tourism basket.
Studies show Nevada is still one of the bottom three least-diversified economies in the country, with too many jobs concentrated in one industry. For two decades, the state was addicted to growth-building so more people could move in. It was a giant ponzi scheme, enabled by sales of public land and pro-growth water agencies. A crash was inevitable.
"We all should have taken a closer look at it, myself included, and said, 'Hey, we need to be more cautious about the speed at which we were going,'" said Aguero.
Aguero says diversifying the economy is not just about attracting new businesses. It first should shore up the ones we have -- create attractions and events that will fill the huge inventory of hotel rooms. Then it's about creating an environment that is attractive to outside companies or industries.
On that score, Aguero says, one factor speaks louder than anything else.
"The thing that speaks volumes more in terms of economic development are the cuts we have made to our education programs. Half a billion dollars in the last legislative session. If I am a business owner, what is going to say more to me about your commitment to long term economic development? Is it the fact that your graduation rate is 50 percent? The fact that your university system is struggling in so many ways?" he said.
No matter how you cut it, Nevada's education system fails to measure up. We have one of the least educated workforces, the lowest graduation rates, the fewest college degrees, and spend among the least per pupil. Everyone wants diversification, but are we willing to spend more?
Through several interviews with business leaders and visionaries, the topic of Nevada's educational woes came up again and again. Spending more on education doesn't guarantee improvement, but spending too little almost guarantees failure.
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