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Rurals of Nevada: Inside Elko County, part 1 (art. 08)
"Elko County is a vast land county . . . striving to build a sustainable economy for generations to live, work and play." - from the Elko County Vision Statement.
One of the joys (or nightmares) of statistical analysis is all the leftover bits of data that do not make it into the final analysis. Anyone who writes based on statistical data is very aware of the innumerable stories buried in the numbers—as well as the agony of determining which to include. Since it is the holidays, I am offering a few gifts of these stories I came across that provide some insight into some Nevada counties.
First up is a look at Elko County, where I live and do a lot of my consulting work. Elko County by multiple measures is the youngest county in the state—despite being what many consider to be the “heart” of rural Nevada. There are also economic changes occurring which I believe is positioning Elko to move beyond its historic reliance on mining, entertainment, and ranching, as I described back in the first article on the aging rurals. Elko might be close to being re-defined as an urban area in the near future, although as I write this article the new Census Bureau definitions of urban (going from a population to a household standard) have not been released yet. Such a redefinition will create serious ripple effects throughout the state.
Elko County is certainly unique in Nevada, but I am not sure how unique it is in terms of demographics is fully appreciated. We can look quickly at another recent demographic concern as further proof: domestic migration. Since the pandemic, a lot of attention has been given to population changes between the states. Two Census Bureau demographers, Luke Rogers and Kristie Wilder, examined the issue early in 2022 in an article in the Bureau’s America Counts series. Taking two snapshots—the 2015-2016 and the 2020-2021 Population Estimates—they looked at the reasons for population gain or loss at the county level across the country. They were careful to emphasize these were not efforts to develop some idea of long-term trends, but the results were intriguing.
The maps they produced appear to confirm some common trends: urban counties tended to grow, rural counties tended to shrink, and migration (both domestic and international) was a more important factor in change than natural growth (births and deaths) in both periods. But when I was looking at Nevada on the map, I was struck by the way in which Elko County stuck out like a sore thumb in both periods. I have extracted the Nevada portion of the maps below to make it easier to read (Elko County is in dark purple in both maps):
While the period between 2010 and 2020 was one of overall growth in Nevada, that growth around 2015 was largely concentrated in Las Vegas and Washoe Counties and their immediate neighbors (darker colors equal population gain). Most other counties lost population (lighter colors indicate loss) in this period. Five years later, in the midst of the pandemic, the situation had changed: every county in Nevada experienced population gain. More significantly, the reason for population change in almost every county was domestic migration—people moving into or leaving the county.
But look at Elko County in the northeast corner of the state. It was the only I-80 Corridor county to see growth in both periods. Moreover, the population gain came from natural change—that is, more births than deaths and net migration combined. Mineral County showed a slight natural decline around 2015 (deaths exceeding births and net migration) and Lander County saw natural growth by 2020; these were the only two exceptions (besides Elko) to the importance of domestic migration to population change.
To emphasize a key point, this data does not provide any explanations in itself. We cannot say for certain whether the population growth across Nevada in 2020 was the result of the rest of the state catching up with early growth in Las Vegas and Reno, people fleeing the pandemic or economic policies in other states, or if something else is attracting new populations. The explanations will require further research.
But when we see a pattern that both is consistent within itself (Elko grew in both) and inconsistent with surrounding areas (natural growth versus migration)—well, that is something to pay attention to. Elko has maintained a long period of steady (but not extravagant) growth even as neighboring counties have experienced downs and ups more typical of rural areas. Sustained growth requires a broad economic base to avoid downturns and keep young generations employed as well as other conditions (housing, quality of life, infrastructure) to encourage families to stay and grow. Elko appears to be living up to its Vision Statement quoted at the top of the page, creating some level of sustainable, multi-generational growth.
But do these characteristics hold across the county? Remember that Elko County is more than 17,200 square miles in area, larger than 9 other states, and almost twice as large as New Hampshire. So we have a population of just over 53,000 (per the 2021 American Community Survey) spread over that area—although not evenly. It follows that demographics within Elko County might mirror circumstances within states. So how might we look at some changes within the county?
Census County Divisions, or CCDs
One of the major problems in looking at demographic change within counties in the West is geography. I am not talking about the breathtaking mountains and broad valleys many of us living here treasure. The real problem is human geography—namely, the lack of intensive settlement patterns that have created long-term local government consistently within counties. Many states, particularly on the East Coast, have incorporated cities and townships which lay adjacent to each other, providing an intra-county framework in which to place demographic, economic, and policy changes. Sure, this city might annex some land and that township might see a portion incorporate itself as a new municipality, but the overall framework exists.
In the West, we do not have this pattern. Elko County only has four incorporated municipalities: Carlin, Elko, Wells, and West Wendover. About half of the county’s population (46%) lives in unincorporated areas outside of these municipalities. How can one “see” the demographic changes more locally than at the county level?
Starting in the 1950s, the Census Bureau recognized this issue and began developing a solution: the Census County Division, or CCD. The official discussion of CCDs is provided here, although most readers might find the really well-done Wikimedia page more helpful for an overview. Basically, those states lacking extensive interior government divisions can apply to have CCDs established (by consultations between the Census Bureau and state officials) to allow consistent data tracking. Currently, 21 states use CCDs, with the others using existing government divisions (known as Minor Civil Divisions or MCDs if you want some variety in your alphabet soup).
Nevada was a relative late-comer to this process, only having CCDs established in the 1990s. Elko County currently has eight CCDs, each named after a prominent population center. They are (in alphabetical order) Carlin, Elko, Jackpot, Jarbidge, Montello, Mountain City, Wells, and West Wendover. To help orient my readers, below is a map of these CCDs (with a few additional landmarks):
A few items to note. First, the CCDs themselves cover vast areas. Moreover, they are not synonymous with established municipalities. The Elko CCD, for instance, includes Spring Creek which is not part of the city of Elko. Some of these CCDs also have incredibly small populations which make sampling surveys (such as the ACS) subject to wide swings. Both Jarbidge and Montello have populations less than 200, which is just something that has to be worked around.
Finally, the red-shaded box in the upper left corner is the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Reservation. Duck Valley stretches across the border into Idaho, with about half the reservation in each state. The majority of the population, however, lives in Nevada centered around Owyhee (approximately 77% in the 2020 Census). This Nevada population is included in the Mountain City CCD, but the division is an example of one of the problems facing Native American communities straddling other governmental divisions; the geographies often do not line up readily.
So we work with what we have. With the CCDs as our baseline, we can look at how the population within Elko County is changing.
Internal Population Change
I originally wanted to do an analysis similar to that of the America Counts article discussed above, but ran into a problem: the data used in that analysis is not readily available at the CCD level. But since the more intriguing question in my mind was if and where population might be shifting, the American Community Survey data could provide that information even if the question of births/deaths versus migration is open.
So, to mirror the article above as close as possible, I took the ACS 5-year Estimates from 2011, 2016, and 2021 for each of the CCDs. I then looked at the percent change from 2011-2016 and from 2016-2021, as well as the overall percent change from 2011-2021. This information should provide a good look at how the population in Elko is shifting. The results are given on the table below:
Overall, Elko County grew just over 10% in population from 2011 to 2021. This rate is slower than Nevada’s 14.4% growth over the same period, but nicely above the national rate of 7.5%. It should also be noted that most this growth occurred between 2011 and 2016, faster than Nevada and the United States, but slowed afterwards behind both. The rapid growth period corresponded with the expansion of mining in the wake of the Great Recession.
The real surprise, however, is where that growth was occurring. Over the entire ten-year period of 2011 to 2021, only the Elko, Wells, and West Wendover CCDs saw positive growth. The rest saw decreases—mostly after 2016 (the wild swings in Jarbidge and Montello are more sampling issues—both currently have populations under 200). The Wells CCD saw significant growth from 2011 to 2016, but declined after; its positive growth was a remnant of the earlier part of the decade.
The real exception, however, is the Elko CCD, which has accelerated in growth throughout the period. Indeed, the fact that the growth rate from 2016-2021 was 170% that of the previous five years is astounding. A large part of this was an increase in population outside the city of Elko. Remember that the CCD includes Spring Creek, and the CCD population is greater than the other four counties (Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, and Pershing) in the I-80 Corridor combined.
In a sense, the population dynamics within Elko County are mirroring that of the country as a whole. Areas that are more “urban” are seeing rather pronounced growth, while rurals areas are shrinking. Within Elko County, the Elko-Spring Creek complex (the Elko CCD) is starting to rapidly outstrip the growth of the rest of the county. The acceleration of this process after 2016, I believe, is linked to some real changes occurring in Elko’s economic base (I will be looking at this more in the new year). Compare this with Wells CCD, which saw sharp growth from 2011 to 2016 then a shallower but still-pronounced drop. This pattern mirroring a boom-plateau (we do not say “bust” up here) cycle is typical of single-industry economies. But the city of Elko is starting to resemble an urban area with a broader base for sustained growth.
One final oddity in this population dynamic bears discussion. Both the West Wendover and Jackpot CCDs are largely single-industry areas—although the industry in those areas is entertainment. Both are casino towns located on state borders (Utah for West Wendover, Idaho for Jackpot) and well-positioned to benefit from interstate traffic. But only West Wendover has grown—although not by much. Jackpot, on the other hand, saw strong growth 2011-2016, then collapse afterwards. Two single-industry towns, two different experiences.
Can we explain the different outcomes in these two “Casino CCDs”? A quick look at the population estimated from each ACS 5-year Estimate from 2011 to 2021 reveals one key clue, as shown on the chart below:
Remember that the CCDs are not synonymous with municipalities, but both Jackpot (unincorporated town) and West Wendover (municipality) contain the largest percentage of population in each. West Wendover CCD’s population has grown slightly, but has remained around the 4500 mark. But Jackpot CCD’s population grew dramatically early in the decade, adding over 500 people by 2015. This growth was integrated into a long-term Jackpot Master Plan approved by Elko County in 2014. The endpoint, which the 2020 Census data was expected to confirm, was the unincorporated town of Jackpot would be eligible to apply for incorporated municipality status, completing a process began in the 1950s.
It is not going to happen anytime soon. Around 2019, populations began dropping in both CCDs—although at a much more pronounced rate in Jackpot. The roaring general economy of the period might have encouraged people to leave the casino service industry. Then the pandemic hit. The prolonged closure of the casinos resulted in quickening of population loss, and again Jackpot was much harder hit. When the pandemic passed, West Wendover quickly regained population, and is today slightly above what it was in 2011. Jackpot, however, remains just below where it was 2011. That fact, however, hides that all the impressive growth from 2012 to 2018 has been eclipsed.
There are multiple issues at work. Interstate 80 has a far higher volume of traffic coming to West Wendover than US-93 brings to Jackpot. Idaho also has seen more casino development (in places such as Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel at Fort Hall) than Utah—and those casinos stayed open and may have “stolen” a customer base in the Twin Falls region which used to go to Jackpot. Moreover, West Wendover’s larger size and broader economy with the opening of the nearby Long Canyon Mine and of retail services for its area might also have created greater resiliency, reducing population loss. Jackpot is dependent on the Twin Falls area, about 30 minutes away, for most retail services. But taken together, it is clear that Jackpot was seriously harmed by the casino closures of the pandemic, and is unlikely to fully recover anytime soon.
The Younging of Elko County
We have seen that over the last decade Elko County has seen some significant shifts in the location of its population. But what about the “younging” of Elko County? Does age follow the same pattern as seen with the population change?
To answer that, we can use the Walk-in-the-Park ratio discussed in last week’s article. This ratio, remember, is the Population under 18 compared to the Population 65 and older. My conceit was that if you were walking in a park, how many children playing would you likely see for each senior citizen? I still think it is a good way to get at the relative age of an area.
The map below shows the Walk-in-the-Park ratio for each CCD in Elko County, based on the 2021 ACS data. For the sake of comparison, I also added the Median Age for each CCD. These are given with the ratio on top, with the median age underneath. The darker the color for each CCD, the “younger” the population—sort of a younging heat map.
The first item I noticed was how closely Median Age tracked with the Walk-in-the-Park ratio, which was a little different than elsewhere in the state. Note the “n/a” ratio for the Jarbidge CCD; the 2021 ACS sample showed no population under 18. Sampling error or not, given the extremely high median age indicates this is an old area. Montello is not much better, and the closure of the Montello Elementary School in 2016 could mean the region is heading the way of Midas.
The Mountain City CCD has a Walk-in-the-Park ratio at the national and state averages, but an older Median Age. Its population loss appears to be the result of a “hollowing out” process, where working age adults are leaving a population of children and senior citizens. It bears some more analysis. Wells, however, is graying rather significantly. I am speculating that much of the growth from 2011 to 2016—over 24%—was largely working age adults associated with the initial stage of the Long Canyon Mine project (the mine is located between Wells and West Wendover). Once the initial stage was complete, a large portion of that population left.
But notice that the youngest CCD overall remains the Elko CCD, further evidence of the pull of this potentially emerging urban area. It is also having some spillover effect. The Carlin CCD had shrunk over the previous decade, but currently has a fairly high Walk-in-the-Park ratio (at 1.9 : 1) and a median age just slightly above the state average. At easy commuting distance (about 22 miles), it is benefitting from the growth of the city of Elko. Its housing stock is flipping as a bedroom community for families, similar to Spring Creek.
The two surprises, however, are the Casino CCDs discussed above. Both have very young populations that appear extreme. The Jackpot CCD as of the 2021 ACS has the youngest Median Age in county, at 28.3 (10 years younger than the state). Given the high Walk-in-the-Park ratio of 2.1 : 1, I do not think this is a sampling anomaly. West Wendover CCD, on the other hand, has an extreme Walk-in-the-Park ratio of 7.8 : 1, which again given the relatively young Median Age of 36.6 indicates something other than a sampling issue.
I think both of these areas are suffering an odd repercussion of the pandemic shutdowns: working adults without families employed by the casinos left during the crisis. Those with families, on the other hand, stayed and weathered the situation. Since neither area is seeing a voluntary retirement migration (similar to Douglas or southern Nye Counties), this results in really young populations.
But these levels of “youngness” also indicate something more for long-term growth. For West Wendover, to get the high population under 18, there have to be a large number of families or large families. Moreover, it is not clear these families will stay in the long run. Recall that West Wendover’s growth has been relatively flat over the last decade. To me, this indicates a significant portion of those children have been leaving once they grow up. The ambitious effort of West Wendover to move beyond a single-industry town to a more stable community by creating a downtown from scratch indicates a desire to change this dynamic.
For Jackpot, I believe the really young Median Age is a marker of the success of efforts to grow the town in the mid-2010s, in accordance with the master plan I mentioned above. One concern was moving a workforce to the town, whether than relying on commuting from Twin Falls. It looks to me that a number of young families took advantage of this process and moved to Jackpot and established families. This dynamic could be a positive sign for the future growth of Jackpot—if they can keep the families there and continue to develop. The lack of returning population in the aftermath indicates troubles lay ahead for Jackpot’s plans.
There is one other factor in this process that needs to be discussed further. Recall that Elko County is one of the more "diverse” counties in rural Nevada, per the Census Bureau’s Diversity Index. The three CCDs which are growing also have high percentages of Hispanic populations. Moreover, the impact of the Duck Valley Reservation on the demographics of the Mountain City CCD. Next week, I will dig into the diversity issue a bit more.
Thank you again for reading. And I wish everyone a Safe and Happy New Year from cold and snowy northeastern Nevada.