Is growth finallly slowing down?

The one constant in this valley’s remarkable run of change and prosperity has been growth. Over the past two decades, Clark County’s population has swelled each year by a predictable rate of between 5 and 6 percent.

It’s not just a statistic. It’s an identity that creates benefits and challenges unimaginable in most parts of the country. Being the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country means tens of billions of dollars in private investment, tens of thousands of new, good-paying jobs and untold opportunities for businesses of all stripes. It also means crowded roads and schools and an unrelenting demand for resources and energy.

Governments and industries have long banked on the assumption that tens of thousands of people will continue moving here each year. Some key public agencies have launched or are about to embark on expensive, long-term plans that anticipate the county’s population (which is about to hit 2 million) will continue growing at a torrid rate in the years ahead.

But last week, Clark County Demographer Jon Wardlaw handed down official word that will affect every business plan and government budget in the region: the Las Vegas Valley’s runaway growth has slowed to a brisk jog.

Mr. Wardlaw reported that between July 2006 and July 2007, the county’s population grew 2.7 percent, a 50 percent decline from the previous year and the lowest local one-year growth rate in recent history.

“That’s weak,” said Applied Analysis principal Jeremy Aguero, an expert on the Southern Nevada economy. “That’s lower than the low end of the range I was expecting.”

It’s big news to be sure. But is it good news or bad news? Has the valley’s increasing cost of living and worsening traffic congestion finally made Las Vegas a less desirable place to live? Or is this a blip on the radar until seven new megaresorts open their doors on the Strip?

Certainly, slower growth is a mixed bag for the public sector. Agency chiefs who bemoan the crushing demand for their services won’t complain about slower population growth, at first. But they might once they realize their budgets were built on revenue projections that probably won’t materialize.

Industries that are dependent on new residents setting up house — from homebuilders and landscapers to sellers of furniture and household goods — have to be concerned. Already, the county is in the midst of a housing and retail sales slump that has hurt sectors of the local economy.

But a more moderate growth rate might be good news for taxpayers, who’ve seen their governments increase spending at rates far faster than population growth and inflation combined. After years of claiming that taxes must be increased because “growth doesn’t pay for growth,” big-government boosters would have to come up with a new pitch to justify tax hikes.

It’s too early to say if Mr. Wardlaw’s report is a bellwether for slower population growth over the long term. Few people have gotten rich betting against Las Vegas. But at a minimum, it would be wise for governments to re-evaluate the scope of any expansion plans.

The Clark County School District, in particular, already dealing with lower-than-expected enrollment for the current academic year, should re-examine whether the size of the new-school construction bond that it will be put before voters next year remains appropriate.

Forcing a government and an economy built on rapid growth to adjust to slower growth would not happen without some short-term pain. But it might not turn out to be such a bad thing after all.

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