Nevada has ingeniously created a niche for itself out of seemingly unpromising origins. Originally settled by miners, who arrived after gold and silver were discovered in 1859, Nevada in many senses remains an outpost of the Wild West, where social behavior is regulated more by market forces than by laws. Just as small mining towns survived by providing illicit attractions - drinking, gambling and prostitution - Nevada, as one observer has noted, “built an economy by legalizing everything that was illegal in California.” And today, it is still known for its permissiveness. Located along the California border in the state’s southern tip, Las Vegas capitalized on this reputation with a recent tourism slogan: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Sin City indeed.
More and more, even regular folks are staying in Las Vegas, though. Ironically, its Spanish name means “the meadows,” but Las Vegas is famous worldwide for its strip of flashy lighted casino signs, reportedly visible at night from space. The largest U.S. city founded in the 20th century, Las Vegas is now the 30th largest metropolis in the country, with a metro area population of over two million people. That means that more than 70% of Nevada’s over 2.8 million residents live in or around Las Vegas, the state’s top economic engine but not its capital. That would be Carson City, located near Lake Tahoe in the Reno metro area. The state’s second largest metro area with more than 430,000 people, Reno is roughly seven hours north of Las Vegas by car.
Nevada’s astonishing 66% population growth between 1990 and 2000 – driven mainly by the development boom in Las Vegas – has now slowed to a growth rate of approximately 7% between 2010 and 2015. However, it remains the sixth fastest growing state in the U.S. after North Dakota, Texas, Colorado, Utah and Florida. Not surprisingly, real estate prices in Nevada have paralleled these population trends. While prices faltered when the boom began to moderate, things are now swinging upwards again, with a five-year statewide total appreciation rate of over 27% between 2010 and 2015. As of early 2016, the median home value in Nevada was $243,002, approximately $60,000 more than the U.S. median, while the median rental price was $1,227.
Although the Silver State is still the second-largest producer of that precious metal, its largest industry is now tourism. Nevada’s casino-based tourism industry contributes 45% of the state's tax revenues and employs 28% of the workforce, while gambling alone generates over $10 billion annually in tax revenue – the largest amount for any U.S. state. The hotels, casinos, restaurants, nightclubs and entertainment venues of Las Vegas have now expanded to include other tourist-friendly businesses, including golf courses, upscale spas and amusement parks. Another major attraction in the area is Lake Mead, the nation's largest man-made lake and reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1935. In this desert state, boaters, swimmers and water-skiers consider Lake Mead a 247-square-mile water wonderland.
Though it would have represented a significant addition to the state's economy, Nevada vigorously opposed the federal government's plans to construct a nuclear waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, a remote desert area 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2011, federal funding ended, and the project was pulled. Nevadans may resent the fact that over 81% of state land is under federal control – the second highest percentage in the country after Alaska - and state and local governments have little input into how federal lands are used. Furthermore, the federal government may have engendered mistrust through its secrecy regarding Area 51 within the Nellis Air Force Base. Area 51 has been the subject of much speculation about UFO sightings, government cover-ups and covert military operations involving everything from time travel to a staged moon landing.