ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT/State boundary key to merger of two cities
With casinos and hotels that provide jobs and feed revenue growth, West Wendover, Nev., is flourishing; the local population of 4,700 is growing 10 percent annually, and the number of single-family homes and small businesses is increasing steadily. To the east, Wendover, Utah, stands in marked contrast. There, the town of 1,500 residents is mired in debt, with little hope of expanding its tax base.
“It’s really night and day,” says Stephen Perry, Wendover’s mayor. “In the last 10 years, West Wendover’s population has grown while ours has stayed the same or even gotten smaller. We’ve got sub-standard housing, and we’ve had bankruptcies. Our businesses are really struggling.”
That could change, however, as local, state and federal legislators consider merging the two communities, a move that would involve redrawing state lines to allow West Wendover to annex its economically depressed neighbor. Specifically, Utah would have to cede Wendover, which comprises approximately 10,000 acres, to Nevada.
Wendover was founded in 1907 as a railroad stop, and it boomed during World War II as the site of a military air base. (The Enola Gay practiced bombing runs in Wendover, prior to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.) The wartime population reached 20,000, but after the war — when West Wendover emerged as a tourist attraction — residents began moving across the border for casino jobs and lower taxes.
Today, most of the residents of both communities work in the West Wendover casinos. However, as housing prices have risen in Nevada, many low-income workers have retreated to Utah and settled in trailers.
By merging with its neighbor, Wendover could reverse the downslide, Perry says. Nevada’s tax structure (the state does not collect income or corporate taxes) is beneficial for housing and business development. Furthermore, a merger would allow the towns to consolidate services.
“We would have one city attorney, one city manager, one police department,” Perry says. “We could save $250,000 a year by sharing services.”
The prospect of unification has received widespread support. Wendover’s council has voted in favor of a merger, and, in Washington, D.C., Utah Rep. Jim Hansen (with the support of Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons) plans to introduce a bill to obtain congressional approval for a border change. Utah State Senator Ron Allen plans to bring the issue before state lawmakers as well.
However, West Wendover, which swore in a new mayor and two new council members in June, has yet to approve the unification concept. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the town’s six-member council has arranged a public hearing in August and expects to take a hard look at potential drawbacks to a merger.
Uppermost is the fact that Wendover is approximately $13 million in debt as the result of building a new elementary school and making improvements to its municipal airport. (The town remodeled the airport in hopes of attracting commercial traffic and industrial development, neither of which has materialized.)
Additionally, the gaming industry opposes the proposed border shift. Casino owners in West Wendover fear that expanding Nevada would open up more land for gaming development, thereby cutting into their profits. They support an alternative arrangement that would allow the two communities to share municipal services without redrawing state lines.
According to Perry, Hansen’s proposed bill would give the communities and states six years to study the feasibility of a border change. If all the parties can reach mutually agreeable terms and the state lines are redrawn, the picture of two Wendovers — one prosperous and one dilapidated — could be redrawn as well.