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Nevada’s 3rd-largest city: North Las Vegas or Reno?

North Las Vegas and Reno continue to battle for a spot as the third most populated city in Nevada, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau data.

North Las Vegas was once a bootlegging settlement, and Reno in the northern part of the state was once known as “cow county,” but both cities have changed their image and economy over time — and size in recent years.

In 2020 census estimates, Reno was the third most populated city (264,981) in Nevada falling behind Las Vegas and Henderson. North Las Vegas’ population (271,104) surpassed Reno’s population (270,019) by nearly a thousand residents one year later. This trend continued in 2023 and 2024 census estimates, with the gap between North Las Vegas and Reno’s population widening.

North Las Vegas: From a bootlegging economy to industrial powerhouse

North Las Vegas is home to Apex Industrial Park, which has attracted numerous warehousing and distribution centers. However, the city has not always been known as an industrial powerhouse.

The area known today as North Las Vegas was originally a settlement formed during the Prohibition era where bootlegging was a major part of its early economy, UNLV history professor Michael Green said.

“It helped to make people look down on North Las Vegas, that it was not developed by the railroad, or any wealthy founder. So, there wasn’t this upper crust, or upper middle class that moved in,” he said.

Green also pointed to conflict that the majority Hispanic and Black neighborhood saw during desegregation.

“Rancho [High School] was the scene of violence in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Mainly between black and white students… There has been a racial component to its reputation and that has an impact on how the city is viewed,” Green said.

North Las Vegas also financially suffered after the 2008 Great Recession.

Michaela Moore, city manager, said North Las Vegas became the “epicenter for foreclosures” during this time.

“That was really a big hit to the city’s tax revenues,” she said. With so many foreclosures, the city couldn’t generate revenue from property taxes, she added.

In the aftermath of the recession, the city was close to defaulting on its debt. In 2014, North Las Vegas struggled to pay public employees while keeping a balanced budget.

But part of North Las Vegas’ economic rebuilding centered around Apex.

Among the recent projects to open at the park include distribution centers for Crocs Inc.-owned Hey Dude and Smith’s.

“It was good happenstance that land was annexed for the industrial park… [The City of North Las Vegas] were the ones willing to take the risk on because they had no other choice,” said Andrew Woods, UNLV economics professor and directer for the Center for Business and Economic Research.

Moore said that along with developing affordable housing, North Las Vegas has also prioritized creating jobs and attracting businesses at Apex Industrial Park.

Woods said another way North Las Vegas has grown its population is by attracting residents with jobs and attracting workers who want short commutes to work.

“Now that they have those jobs, the challenge is that they want the workers to spend their money in North Las Vegas rather than at the casinos,” he said.

Commercial centers are expected to generate more revenue for the city. North Las Vegas is expecting two new projects aimed at adding retail, entertainment, and sporting jobs, Hylo Park and Gateway Village. The city aims to continue economic growth by working with businesses and adapting to their needs.

Reno: From ‘cow county’ to outdoor recreation

In the past, Reno was seen as a ‘cow county,’ where its economy centered mostly on agriculture and gaming, said Brian Bonnenfant, project manager for the Center for Regional Studies at UNR.

When California signed compacts with tribes to have casinos along U.S. Route 50, the gaming economy in Reno effectively ended, he said.

“In 2001, we basically knew that our gaming or tourism gaming was done, and we really needed that transition. And we really, really struggled with that all the way through the recession,” Bonnenfant said.

Since then, Reno has expanded its economy into the renewable sector, with lithium mining for electric vehicle batteries, and outdoor recreation, with attractions like Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like North Las Vegas, luck played a major role in rebuilding the economy.

“It really had to do with location, location, location,” Bonnenfant said.

With Reno situated along the Interstate 80 highway and near Silicon Valley, it became an attractive site for Tesla, Google, Apple and other corporations, he said.

The future of Reno and North Las Vegas

In the future, Bonnenfant hopes that Reno develops its downtown area and attracts more employees to fill positions in its growing labor market.

With North Las Vegas management in new hands, Moore hopes to continue prioritizing affordable housing, developing and attracting businesses, and make the quality of life for North Las Vegas residents better.

“All cities change… Both Reno and Las Vegas have struggled with their images in ways that Las Vegas hasn’t. They want to be taken seriously,” commented Green.

Contact Annie at avong@reviewjournal.com

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