Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bonanza Column 169 – If We Don’t Change Our Direction…

The report commissioned by the Washoe County Department of Community Development that was issued in December could not be more clear or more dire in its implications for Incline Village and Crystal Bay. The independent consulting firm that carried out the study lists ten findings in its report, the first of which is that "Housing is out of reach of most of the Incline Village/Crystal Bay workforce." In addition to finding that affordable housing is scarce and getting scarcer, the study documented what has been known anecdotally for some time – the population of year-round residents and families with children is declining, and in the finding that is perhaps the most obvious, the report concludes that lack of workforce housing is detrimental to the local economy.

As you drive around the community, notice the number of empty commercial properties and notice the attrition of small businesses here. Unlike resorts and casinos, small businesses depend on a year-round local workforce and, perhaps more importantly, year-round local patronage. A resort or casino can hire seasonal help and can plan for predictable slack seasons – as long as tourists come the resorts and casinos will survive.

When I was growing up my father owned a small retail clothing store in a town that, when I was born, had 25,000 people. His clientele were working-class folks and his stock was work and casual clothes and shoes for the whole family – remember shops like that? Up until World War II, that town had a booming economy. Just prior to the war two-thirds of the leather gloves produced in the world were made there, and the war kept the boom going. In the fifties, though, glove and leather manufacturing moved to Europe, particularly Italy, and the town's economy began to decline, along with my father's business. I remember long, difficult conversations between him and my mother about how hard it was to stay in business, and eventually he closed it and went to work in one of the early crop of discount stores that decimated main streets all over the country.

Most small businesses operate on thin margins and have a tough time when business falls off for any reason. The current recession has exacerbated that problem; we've seen businesses close here and we'll see more close in the coming months, with no commensurate opening of new businesses. Soon our community will consist of the three R's – Raley's, Restaurants, and Realtors.

Predictably, there will be those who will oppose workforce housing or other changes, wanting to keep the community as it was ten or fifteen years ago. Equally predictably, there will those who will decry any attempt to plan or change as a (Washoe County/IVGID/Obama/communist/environmentalist/socialist/liberal/ neoconservative/fascist – pick one) plot. And, at the Community Forum a couple of weeks ago there were those who attempted to redefine the issue to one they could more easily argue against. No such nonsense should be allowed to stand.

Affordable workforce housing will not turn this community into a metropolitan area or even into South Lake Tahoe (whatever that means). As Heather Segale of TERC pointed out, conversion of current land use for housing use can be done in a way that actually contributes to the environment. Most importantly, it will change the character of the community, and I think that's a good thing. This area, famously referred to in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago as "Income Village" needs to change to remain viable as a community. Those who decry any change are missing a couple of salient facts: First, a community is a living thing, and living things change or die. Second, it will change one way or the other – we will, intentionally and with planning make it attractive to young families and to small businesses or it will become more like Squaw Valley or Northstar – a community of vacation homes built around recreation facilities.

Two well-known aphorisms come to mind – the first rule of holes is "if you find yourself in one, stop digging." And in the words of Prof. Irwin Corey, "if we don't change our direction, we're liable to get where we're headed."

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