EDITORIAL: Population growth

The G-word is back.

It might not seem like it, amid a far-from-normal economic recovery with persistently high unemployment, but the Las Vegas Valley is growing again. And the growth is surprisingly strong.

According to local research firm Applied Analysis, the valley has added almost 100,000 new residents over the past two years, boosting Southern Nevada’s population to 2.06 million. That’s not quite pre-recession runaway growth, but it rivals the nation-leading growth rate of booming North Dakota. A net population gain of roughly 4,000 people every month is a sure sign that hiring is picking up and that the newly moved believe in the future of Las Vegas.

“We’re doing the right things again,” Applied Analysis principal Jeremy Aguero said upon releasing the annual Las Vegas Perspective economic report. “Housing prices are starting to peak again. People are going back to work again.” A return to growth is “remarkably important,” he said.

The U.S. Census Bureau last week reported slightly slower growth in Las Vegas, with about 30,000 new residents added between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2013. But even those numbers point to recovery and job growth, said Stephen Brown, director of UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

The valley’s population peaked at 2.04 million in 2010, then declined as housing cratered, incomes fell and construction jobs vanished. Now that people are moving back to Southern Nevada, is growth a good thing? Plenty of people who gutted out the Great Recession remember the days when we couldn’t build roads and schools fast enough.

Yes, growth is good. Growth is essential to returning Nevada to full employment, or something close to it. And the resulting economic growth will deliver the tax revenue increases that impatient governments are clamoring for today.

There are new challenges, of course. The Clark County School District is almost out of capital funding, its growing enrollment already exceeds the systemwide capacity of its permanent campus buildings, and it will be 2016 at the soonest before voters get to weigh in on a bond extension. The challenges might be manageable in the short term; if the valley were growing at a pre-2008 clip, it would be a disaster.

“In the aggregate, we are looking at a population growth between 20,000 and 50,000 (people) per year in the upcoming years,” Jon Wardlaw, planning manager for Clark County Comprehensive Planning, told the Review-Journal’s Maria Agreda. “That’s assuming that there is not another big economic downturn.”

We know full well that growth — and the economy — can come to a screeching halt. We have to prepare for growth, but we can’t depend on it. No doubt, we’ll soon hear the familiar refrain, “Growth doesn’t pay for growth,” and the accompanying calls for tax increases. Those debates will seem like “Groundhog Day.” Brace yourselves for ever-heavier traffic on busy highways.

Growth is back. And not a moment too soon.

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