by Russ Steele
By the time you read this, Ellen and I will be back home in Nevada County. We have been on a coast-to-coast road trip across the nation to Delaware for a 50-year family wedding anniversary. As is our custom, we like to use the back roads of America when-ever practical. Pulling a trailer on the freeway can be a challenge in heavy traffic. It is less stressful on America’s two-lane highways that go through villages, towns and small cities.
As we went across the country, we looked for signs of economic recovery, buildings going up, homes being built, a new barn here and there, the age of the farm equipment in the fields, etc. We also looked for closed-up storefronts and boarded-up buildings. We also watched for For Sale and Foreclosure signs. Granted, most of this observation was from the main street, as we did not explore too many side streets, though there were a few side trips when we were looking for the best BBQ ribs in town.
Overall, we did not see as much economic blight as we had expected. Middle America seems to be doing OK. We took old highway 40 across parts of Utah and Colorado and the resort towns are surviving. The RV parks were not as full as we had expected, and business was down according to RV park managers. At a Mom and Pop BBQ place in Craig, Colorado, the owners said they had weathered the slow economy by planning ahead, and now business was picking up. They were looking for a good summer season.
We stopped in Greeley, Colorado to visit with Larry and Linda Burkhardt over the Memorial Day weekend. Larry was Nevada County’s first ERC President. Economic development in Weld County is going very well for Larry. A cheese factory is building a plant that will require expansion of local herds of milk cows, creating an economic ripple effect. This cheese factory has five of the major Pizza chains under contract to provide their mozzarella cheese. Shale oil and gas exploration is ramping up in the region, with Halliburton, an oil and gas field service company, and two drilling companies building facilities in the county. Since arriving in Colorado six years ago, Larry has helped facilitate the creation of over 900 jobs, with an annual budget of about $800,000. It takes money to create jobs, something that has escaped our local political leaders, who could never find enough money for robust job creation programs in Nevada County.
According to Larry, unemployment is about 10% in Weld County, as people are flocking to the region looking for jobs since news of the regional industrial growth was reported in the region's newspapers. While Weld County is “not roaring right now, they are posed to take off once the economy gets rolling again,” said Larry.
Yes, Colorado is recruiting California business, encouraging them to come to Colorado with its more friendly business environment. Colorado is number seven on the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s list of states with the highest levels of personal and economic freedom, while California is number 48. Great fodder for Weld County marketing campaigns.
Before moving back to California in 1980, we lived in Papillion, Nebraska, which is a suburb of Omaha. Omaha was recently profiled in Wired Magazine as a city that has re-made itself, “transforming itself into one of the Midwest’s most vibrant cultural hubs,” creating jobs across the spectrum for job seekers, young and old. Sarpy County unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in April, down from 4.9 percent in February. We visited our old neighborhood and were amazed there were no For Sale signs, no Foreclosure Signs, and when we drove to downtown Papillion, there were no closed-up stores, and there were signs of prosperity everywhere.
Do not get me wrong, as we traversed the country we saw both towns struggling economically and prosperous towns that seem be weathering this economic downturn. In the Midwest there are cornfields on every patch of flat land as far as the eye can see. Growing corn for the ethanol plants must be good business, for many towns in the corn belt are prospering.
As we climbed into the hills of West Virginia, we saw evidence of coal mining, and nearby towns seem to be doing well, with full car dealerships and on-going commercial construction, and lots of commercial traffic on the roads. West Virginia unemployment rate was 8.6 in May, down from 8.7 in April.
Communities that were engaged in large scale agriculture and energy resource extraction seem to be doing better than many of the other communities that we passed through. It makes me wonder how Western Nevada County would be doing economically if we once again embraced gold mining?
One economic sector of the economy that is growing quite rapidly, is the Federal Government. During a discussion of grandchildren’s schools, we learned that one Washington,DC suburb has built a new elementary school in the district every year for the last six years, as they expand to meet the demand. Most of the parents are government employees, according to relatives living in the community. The town is now building another high school to handle the wave of elementary and middle school students that are progressing up the academic ladder. This is in contrast to Nevada County, that is closing and consolidating schools as the student population drops by 3-6% a year. There is talk about closing Bear River High School to consolidate the student load on a single NU campus, saving more tax dollars.
Nevada County’s economy is shrinking and Washington, DC’s economy is growing, and neither condition is sustainable.
I will add more observations on NC Media Watch as we start our return trip to California. We live in a great nation, and it helps to get out of California and see the snow-covered Rocky mountains, the multi-colored deserts of Nevada and Utah, and vast expanses of agriculture in American’s bread basket. Plus, the tree-covered historical battlefields of the Virginias, and sand dunes of Delaware. Even more enjoyable is the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with others on the road enjoying our great country.
Russ Steele is a freelance writer, who blogs on local issues at NC Media Watch.