Building the Reno economic base one job at a time

January 7, 2011



Written by: Vipin Gupta and Mark Lautman
Edited by
: Susannah Skyer Gupta
Formatted by:
Nathan Tafoya and Lucas Lautman
Original article located here:

Our beds are empty 2/3 of the time.
Our living rooms are empty 7/8 of the time.

Our office buildings are empty 1/2 of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.

– R. Buckminster Fuller, visionary and inventor of the geodesic dome

Reno has too many houses for sale, too few jobs, and a whole Mackay stadium full of Nevadans who are hungry to accomplish something that tops the football team’s victory over Boise State. This peculiar set of circumstances may signify the turning point for Reno to transform its shrinking economy. With the boost provided by the Wolf Pack’s athletic achievements, maybe the collective psyche of the entire community now has enough confidence, optimism, and drive to build up its economic base over the next twelve to eighteen months. If so, this bruised community needs a game plan that has a decent shot of achieving such an audacious goal.

So what does a rapid economic turnaround plan look like? It all starts with the three best reasons to live in Reno, as voted by local residents in the Reno News & Review 2010 Readers Choice Survey: the outdoors/outdoor activities (#1), the weather (#2), and the people (#3). The first attraction appeals to individuals worldwide who love snow sports, kayaking, camping, hiking, and cycling; the second is for those who enjoy mostly sunny weather with microclimate changes every thirty minutes; and the third is for people who seek friendship and family togetherness amongst the cosmopolitan mix of people in the Biggest Little City in the World.

Given that these attractions resonate with individuals and families rather than companies and industries, Reno’s economic development strategy needs to be turned on its ear. Instead of relying on the recruitment, startup, and retention of companies with 100 or more economic base jobs and developing new industry clusters with 1000 or more economic base jobs, Reno economic players need to try attracting, retaining, and creating one economic base job at a time.

These types of jobs tend to bring in high annual income ($100,000-$200,000/year) and be location neutral where the individual worker can routinely telecommute from anywhere in the country and occasionally travel to their employer’s or clients’ main location. These location-neutral workers are a largely undiscovered gold mine; only New Mexico is actively pursuing them for relocation.

Because these workers spend dollars they’ve earned from other parts of the world to buy local goods and services (which generate sales tax revenues) and purchase houses (which generate property tax revenues), each location-neutral worker can generate up to two local economic service jobs (for example, retailers, teachers, firefighters, librarians, city staff, and so on). If just 500 of these already employed location-neutral workers could be enticed to bring their jobs to Reno over this next year, up to 1000 new economic service jobs could be created and filled by Reno residents who are currently unemployed or underemployed. This would likely produce an attention grabbing uptick in every economic indicator that is currently measured.

Persuading these location-neutral workers and their families to come and stay in Reno rather than settle elsewhere requires a competitive playbook that capitalizes on the most appealing attributes that Reno has to offer. Here are some tactics that could convince location-neutral workers and their families to live and work in Reno:

Ski Goodies — Reno economic organizers could proactively identify location-neutral workers amongst the influx of ski enthusiasts to the nearby resorts. Once identified with job status verified, these individuals could then be offered free family ski passes to their favorite ski resort (value: ~$500/person) and gift certificates to Reno’s premier sporting goods stores (value: ~$250/person) provided they move to Reno for at least one ski season. If these workers purchase a home in Reno and provide updated proof of economic base employment, the ski goodies could be awarded to new location-neutral homeowners annually for up to three years until they fall in love with Reno.

VIP Parking Privileges at Reno/Tahoe International Airport — Location-neutral workers need to travel periodically to and from their main employer and clients. To make this part of their work more convenient in Reno, these workers could be given a free annual VIP parking pass for use at the Reno/Tahoe International Airport (value: $120). While it would have low actual usage cost, location-neutral workers would likely consider free airport parking an alluring executive-style perk.

Finder Awards — If local residents persuade their friends or relatives to move their location-neutral job to Reno for at least one year, Reno economic organizers could give both the new and established Reno residents a Finder Award upon receiving proof of the successful recruitment. Such an award could consist of a package of gift certificates (value: $500) to Internet service providers, restaurants, beauty salons, entertainment venues, repair shops, and retail outlets that have been voted by Reno residents as the best of northern Nevada. If the recruited location-neutral worker purchases a home in Reno, the awardees could receive a second installment of gift certificates (value: $750) that could be redeemed at local businesses voted by Reno residents as the best for home improvements, repair, and furnishings.

Homestead Tours of Reno — As prospective location-neutral workers from outside the city register their interest in moving to Reno, Reno economic organizers could assemble them into small groups for a one day and one night guided tour of the city. Local realtors, retirees, and homemakers could serve as tour guides capable of answering any and every question about all of the practical concerns associated with living in Reno (such as schools, entertainment, colleges, medical care, telecom services, neighborhoods, grocery shopping, houses of worship). The group of out-of-town prospects would get to experience Reno firsthand as well as talk with each other about living and working in a city unfamiliar to them. If the tours are done well, these prospects could end up convincing each other about the merits of moving their jobs to Reno.

A Satellite Workplace — Even though location-neutral workers can situate themselves anywhere, they often desire the face-to-face, administrative support services that are typically available at corporate sites. These include accounting, marketing, legal, intellectual property development, web development, and information technology management. Reno economic organizers could bundle this suite of business services from the local community and place them in satellite workplaces located throughout the city. New and established location-neutral workers could then congregate at these locations and contract for the available admin services on an as-needed basis. Location-neutral workers could also socialize with their peers at these satellite workplaces whenever their home-based work felt isolating.

Location-Neutral Socials and Educational Courses — One key need of home-based, location-neutral workers is the means to develop their skills with their peers. University of Nevada Reno, Truckee Meadows Community College and Reno’s conference venues could host a suite of courses, forums, and socials oriented for this workforce. Such offerings would appeal to both new and established location-neutral workers in the area. The courses would also cater to local unemployed or underemployed residents who wish to develop a home-based career that earns dollars from outside of Reno.

K-12 School Jamboree — While Nevada as a state ranks last in education, Washoe County offers solid public and private school options, several free online schools, and a large homeschooling community. In addition to having eight public high schools on Newsweek’s list of “America’s Best High Schools,” Reno is home to several public and private schools that have become known regionally or nationally for academic excellence: Bishop Manogue Catholic, Brookfield, Coral Academy of Science, Davidson Academy of Nevada, Sage Ridge, and TMCC High School. These schools could collectively present their educational credentials to prospective location-neutral workers and their families, showing that their children can receive a nationally and even internationally competitive K-12 education in Reno.

Taken together, these tactics would cover every facet of individualized economic base development starting with sparking the curiosity of prospective location-neutral workers, continuing with small, significant incentive offers for living and working in Reno, and ending with practical answers to the most difficult questions posed by prospective location-neutral workers and their families about choosing Reno over other parts of the world.

If this approach triggers a migration of pioneering location-neutral workers and their families to Reno over this next year, the economic turnaround strategy would then move to its second phase — the settlement of these new residents into the area. Prior to arrival, Reno realtors or rental agents would help the new residents find the best place to live. Upon arrival over the first few days, a Reno tech crew would help each new resident set up the necessary Internet capabilities and technical support services to enable them to teleport to their job. Over the first few weeks, Reno community networkers would be available to help new location-neutral workers and their families become better acquainted with the people, places, and things in the area. Over the first few months, home remodelers would design and bid on projects paid by the new Reno residents to make their homes the most productive for the location-neutral worker, the most cozy for the rest of the family in the winter, and the most comfortable for the entire household in the summer.

Over the first few years as other communities nationwide catch on to the economic value of location-neutral workers, Reno’s economic base development strategy would then morph into its third phase — economic growth and new employment opportunities for Reno residents. With a few thousand location-neutral workers from dozens of different industries firmly implanted within the city limits, Reno would finally have the diverse seed stock in place to grow significantly larger, for-profit companies in fast growth industries. For every 1000 location-neutral workers, perhaps 100 would have the market base and entrepreneurial skills to form a 12-20 person small business unit in Reno. Of these 100 small business units, perhaps 10 could expand into 100-200 person divisions or spinoff companies. And of these 10 medium-size business entities, perhaps a few could develop enough of a global competitive advantage in Reno to grow into 1000+ person companies and become part of a more robust economic foundation for the city.

As with any game plan, the one described here is detailed at the beginning and broad brush at the end. The tactics would change according to what actually happens on the ground. At the same time, the underlying approach of using what Reno has in abundance to get what the city currently lacks would remain a constant. While today’s woes are evident in Reno’s surplus of houses and scarcity of jobs, tomorrow’s prosperity could lie in the cottage industries that move into those exact same houses and are run by a new cadre of employed, location-neutral homeowners. If this type of vision goes viral throughout the community, all will become well in Reno again and soon.

Mark Lautman, CEcD, CRE, is the founding director of the Community Economics Lab — a private, non-profit think tank developing innovative approaches to economic development — and a practicing economic developer for Lautman Economic Architectures.

Vipin Gupta volunteers as a community developer at the Community Economics Lab and telecommutes from Reno to his high-tech job in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His children attend Reno High School and the Davidson Academy of Nevada.

About the Community Economics Lab’s Home-Based Worker Program

Over the past two years, the Community Economics Lab has been developing an economic development program around the creation, recruitment, and retention of location-neutral workers based primarily in their homes. From the proposed concepts and implementation plans, the Lab received a grant from the US Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration to pilot home-based worker programs in two communities in New Mexico. If your community is interested in developing a customized economic development program around location-neutral workers, contact the members of the Community Economics Lab at, or 505-366-3234.