Community Assessment Conducted in Gerlach

Gerlach is a small rural town with less than 200 residents in northeast Washoe County,  Nevada. Originally a railway town, it is better known today as the gateway to the Black Rock Desert to the northeast, and the extensive hunting grounds of northern Washoe and Humboldt Counties, Nevada. In October 1997 a British team set the first supersonic land-speed record of over 760 mph in a jet-powered car on the Black Rock Desert. And each year, in late August/early September, the Burning Man festival brings over 50,000 visitors to the Black Rock Desert playa, greatly impacting the small town of Gerlach.

For many years Gerlach benefitted from the nearby gypsum mine and sheetrock manufacturing plant at the US Gypsum Corporation (USG) town of Empire. However in December 2010, USG announced the closure of the mine, plant and company town, due to the slump in the construction industry, resulting in the loss of over 90 jobs and the displacement of over 300 people from the area. The public schools in Gerlach had over 120 students at the end of 2010. Going into the new academic year in late August 2011, the number will be 8 K-8 students.

Given the impacts of losing this number of people from the area, leaders in Gerlach asked the Nevada Rural Development Council (NRDC) to carry out a Community Assessment. This is a very simple community-based planning process which involves interviewing as many people as possible in the community and recording their thoughts and suggestions on their community. Listening-only sessions are conducted at which three questions are asked: What are the major problems and challenges in your community? What are the major strengths and assets of your community? What projects would you like to see accomplished in your community in the short term (2 to 5 years) and longer term (10 to 20 years)? This is a fundamental community planning process that is strongly supported by the Nevada Commission on Economic Development (NCED) and the state Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG).   

On July 20 and 21, 2011, the NRDC Resource Team, comprising 4 community and economic development professionals from NRDC, NCED, US Department of Agriculture – Rural Development (USDA-RD), and the Western Nevada Development District (WNDD) held the community listening sessions in Gerlach and compiled a brief preliminary report before leaving the community. From the community interviews, the Resource Team identified 4 recurring themes that require action, namely:

Communications (internal sharing of information, and communications between the community and local businesses, tourists and potential investors); Community Development (covering such issues as housing, infrastructure, care for seniors, health care, education and transportation planning); Economic Development (covering an analysis of business potential, asset mapping, an economic development strategy, creating an entrepreneurial environment, investment in job creation programs, ways to capitalize on existing strengths, and programs to promote renewable energy development); and Government Relations/Governance (for example, promoting better relations with the County on zoning and permitting, more cooperation with the School District, and a fresh look at how best to govern the town of Gerlach).

Over the next few weeks, the Resource Team will prepare a more detailed report around these themes, with ideas and suggestions on how to resolve the issues raised and where to go for help and resources. The team will return to Gerlach in October and present the report and initiate the follow-up action phase involving the residents of Gerlach.