Why one Nevada town is the last, smartest boomtown

  It takes an hour for a commuter propjet to cover the 230 miles of desolate salt flats and sagebrush between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Elko, Nev. By the time passengers glimpse the alpine meadows and snowfields of the Ruby Mountains just east of Elko, the aircraft is already making a bumpy descent toward an airport that seems to be in the middle of nowhere.

But once on the ground, visitors quickly find that Elko, despite its remote location in the wide-open Great Basin country of northeastern Nevada, is hardly a cow town. An impressive, new airport terminal that hosts 20 commercial flights daily, a busy city center, a new regional hospital and a sprawl of motels, restaurants and malls leave no doubt that something big is driving the local economy.

That something is gold mining.

Elko is just 20 miles east of the Carlin trend, a 40-mile long geological area rich in deposits of microscopic gold that is the world's third most productive gold-mining region. Each year, Carlin trend mines produce some 4 million troy ounces of gold worth $1.3 billion. With several thousand highly paid employees of major mining and mining-service companies cashing their paychecks in Elko, gold mining supports the lion’s share of the humming local economy.

For more than a century, Elko survived mainly on ranching. But things changed abruptly in the early 1980s when Carlin-trend gold discoveries, high gold prices, and innovative, cost-reducing mining technologies combined to create a gold-mining boom. For the West’s working miners, the timing was perfect. As uranium, copper, molybdenum, and silver prices collapsed and many mines began closing, miners in Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico put busted mining towns in their rearview mirrors and headed for Elko.

As its population doubled rapidly to 18,000, Elko worked hard to provide the services demanded by explosive growth. Then, when mine employment and construction leveled off in the 1990s, Elko settled back to enjoy the good times.

Historically, mining towns have given little thought to the day when metal prices would crash or the ore would run out. When that inevitably happened, miners simply moved on to other mining towns, leaving those who stayed behind with broken economies and desperate, unrealistic hopes that their local chambers of commerce could somehow manage a miraculous economic recovery.

Assuming that gold prices remain reasonably strong, Elko’s gold-mining economy probably has a good 10, maybe even 20 years left, so it shouldn’t be concerned about its future just yet.

Yet, admirably, Elko is concerned. After peaking in 1997, Carlin trend gold production has since declined slightly, but not nearly enough to slow the local economy. Nevertheless, in 1998, Elko hired Ralph McMullan, a proven tourism developer, to head its Convention and Visitors Authority. Back in the 1970s, McMullan transformed Jackson Hole, Wyo., from a gas stop on the drive to Yellowstone to a world-class destination resort. He believes Elko can achieve similar results.

"What we’re doing in Elko is preparing for life after mining," McMullan says. "History tells us that we can’t wait for the mines to close, that we have to be ready before they close.

"Our big resources here are accessibility and space," he continues. "We’re surrounded by millions of acres of public lands with unlimited outdoor recreational potential, and we’ve got a fine airport and a location right on I-80. That’s everything we need to interest people and to bring them here. Elko’s future lies in building a strong tourism economy, and building it now."

Elko is already attracting tourism with casino gambling and events like its Basque Festival, which celebrates local Basque culture, and its internationally acclaimed National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which together draw more than 10,000 visitors each year. Meanwhile, as the town commits $1.5 million annually to promoting tourism, the Elko County Economic Diversification Authority is busily promoting industrial development.

The mining community itself is even involved, something that has not happened in other mining towns. Why? Because while gold mining at Elko has boomed, western metal mining elsewhere has all but died, leaving Elko's miners with no place to go when their own mines eventually close. So the miners who help to build Elko’s future are also working for their own futures.

No other western mining boomtown has ever made this great an effort so early to prepare for the inevitable bust. Elko’s timely quest to assure life after mining may make it not only the last boomtown, but the last and smartest boomtown.

Steve Voynick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Twin Lake, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.