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Boulder City
Boulder City Tomorrow

22 Jan 2014
What will Boulder City look like tomorrow, next year, next decade? Will it successfully continue its steady-state, slow-slow-growth policy, or will it be forced to adapt to changing times? Does the shuttering of the Goatfeathers consignment empire reflect an economic decline of our community, or is it just part of the ups and downs of all small towns?

Forty years I saw my newly-adopted community of Austin, Texas, facing similar concerns under drastically different circumstances. Having moved there the year before to attend the University of Texas, at age 19 the Austin City Council appointed me to a citizens' assembly called Austin Tomorrow. The goal of Austin Tomorrow was, ostensibly, for citizens to learn modern urban planning techniques to map out the growth of the city with care.

I say ostensibly because the real reasons for Austin Tomorrow were far less about citizen guidance of the future, and far more about establishment control of Austin's burgeoning progressive movement, which was notably anti-growth.

What does this have to do with Boulder City? Austin's progressives were dead-set against a fast-growing Austin, while the developers and car salesmen then in charge relied upon economic growth for their prosperity. Like most cities, sales taxes and property taxes fuel the city government. Austin at 250,000 was a comfortable place to live; many of us did not want to see it become another Dallas or Houston, as we commonly put it.

As a graduate student of urban affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public affairs several years later, I tried to create a viable economic urban model that did not include growth. I did not find a single economist willing to work with me on that. The Austin metro area has since more than quadrupled in size, with traffic so bad that you can be gridlocked on a freeway after midnight: it skipped right past Dallas and Houston and became San Francisco instead.

So now I move to Boulder City and discover a town that has successfully negotiated a no-growth path for two decades. The growth is not absolute zero, but so slow that anyone can admire the successful acquisition of the goal. I salute this success, and love Boulder City for it.

The question is, can this model stand indefinitely? Are the economists wrong? Even if the City of Boulder City maintains its land use controls, which have a certain soviet flavor disinterested in the needs of the average citizen, will the world outside stand still and allow us to continue in Pleasantville? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends on what the definition of us is.

As a community we are economically threatened by the Interstate 11 bypass now in the early stages of planning and construction. The I-11 bypass is the third and largest nail in a coffin begun with the rerouting of Highway 93 around the city, and then the building of the Hoover Dam bypass.

Fewer and fewer travelers have a reason to stop here. When I-11 is completed drivers will be able to move between Las Vegas and Phoenix without thinking once, much less twice, about stopping in the dusty little town of Boulder City. This will devastate the small businesses in the old part of town while leaving the warehouses and golf courses unaffected.

What is the city leadership doing about it? Mayor Roger Tobler has formed an informal stakeholders group that smacks of the back room machinations of Austin Tomorrow  informal in a way that means membership and meetings are by invitation, and unadvertised. They are open if you can find them, but you will not find them on the city or chamber of commerce calendars.

The result is a set of policies that can sustain the city revenues indefinitely, regardless of how badly the local economy declines. Since moving here only one season ago I have watched the closing of Goatfeathers I & II, Central Market, two art galleries, a restaurant, our only bookstore, and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken  and those are just the closings that I, a newbie, heard about through GPS orphan searches and word of mouth.

With what does the city propose to replace them? A practice park for remote-controlled weapons of mass destruction, and maybe a couple of warehouse or truck terminals. Jobs for locals? Zero. Economic multiplier effects? Zero. City fees for land leases and sales that ignore the needs of locals? A lot. At this rate Boulder City could end up a lot like Indian Springs.

Meanwhile, proposals to open actual operating retail/low commercial businesses in the early bypass corridor (western Phase I) are backpedaled  in Boulder City. On the Henderson side of the road, plans are underway. The corridor will be developed, at least on the other side. What will the small business folks of Boulder City get to do? Like the folks trapped Under the Dome: Watch, wither, and slowly run out of water.

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