EDAWN CEO: Affordable housing crisis could ‘kill’ booming Reno-Sparks economy if not addressed
The unemployment rate in Reno-Sparks is back under 3% and consumer spending is at an all-time high, but the local economy has rising challenges. KUNR Business Reporter Kaleb Roedel spoke with Mike Kazmierski, CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, about what issues need to be addressed to prevent the fast-growing region from slowing down.
Kaleb Roedel: I'm in the studio with Mike Kazmierski, the president and CEO of EDAWN. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Kazmierski: Great to be here, Kaleb.
Roedel: There's clearly a lot we can unpack, but I wanted to start with this question: Looking at the economy in our region, what numbers and figures jumped out the most to you and why?
Kazmierski: What exciting is we continue to see the right kinds of jobs coming to our community; our prospect activity is up. We're seeing biotech and fintech and cleantech in numbers we've never seen before, so all of that is really exciting on the plus side. On the downside, we just have not adequately addressed our affordable housing issue.
Roedel: I'm glad you brought up housing. That's one thing I wanted to focus on a little more. How important is it that this issue gets solved? And what solutions are out there?
Kazmierski: Well, it's incredibly important. I think it's a national problem, we just happen to feel it a little bit more. The pain level here is higher because of our success. We're the fastest growing midsize community in the nation, so that clearly exacerbates the problem that's occurring everywhere. A lot of issues, prices certainly are a factor, but our local governments are not doing their job either.
For example, auxiliary dwelling units, if the city council said, ‘OK, we're comfortable with that,’ we'd add 2,000 housing units to the market tomorrow. And there are a lot of people that are struggling, they're homeless, they're living in trailers—that would help take some of the pressure off. And then on the support for developer side, if it's too expensive and too timely to do a project, they're going to go somewhere else; they're not going to do it here.
Roedel: And what is the threshold for when companies and startups might start to look elsewhere? Is it when the median home price hits a million dollars? What are we talking about here?
Kazmierski: But we're not going to hit a million dollars. I mean, it's just not going to happen. We don't have that many six-figure jobs and even with the six-figure family income, you can't afford to buy anything over 450 [thousand dollars] right now, anyhow. So, we're never gonna hit a million [dollars]. We're going to stagnate where we are; we're going to eventually kill our economy if we don't address our housing issues, which is why it's our top concern.
Roedel: And what would you say are the biggest challenges outside of housing that our economy faces right now? In other words, what needs to be improved?
Kazmierski: Well, there are things that as a community we can do. I mean, we're dealing with national issues like inflation, decreasing workforce, and others, but we could put more emphasis at upskilling. And that is something that you take someone who is in an industry that is declining—gaming and tourism, for example—with a lot of skills, and you upskill them to a position that probably pays a whole lot more that allows them to stay here and live here, because we have great jobs coming into our community. I mean, the average wages, the jobs we brought in last year, were over 65,000 [dollars].
Roedel: And are state and local governments making efforts to provide programs for these people to upskill?
Kazmierski: Well, they are. In some cases, they are looking at it. In some cases, it's, you know, the helicopter money from D.C. that they're trying to help. But we need, as a state, a sustainable focused effort to upskill our workforce for the jobs of the future. And most of that, in my view, should go to the community colleges, which is really where the near-term upskilling occurs.
Roedel: How far behind are we in terms of building that pipeline up?
Kazmierski: Well, let's just say, you know, we didn't have much manufacturing here 10 years ago, so we're in the ramp up mode; we're doing pretty well. I mean, we got 10,000 workers out at the Tesla facility between Panasonic and Tesla, and some of the other suppliers and providers. So, you know, those jobs didn't exist 10 years ago; now we've got the workforce filling those positions. But Tesla would be a lot bigger if we had adequate workforce here.
Roedel: And, then, where do you see our economy going from here? What is the outlook for 2022? And what opportunities lie ahead?
Kazmierski: It's hard to believe in the middle of a pandemic that our numbers are up over the last seven years, but it's because we are a great place to live, work and play. And we've become a growing technology center. So, we got people that can work remotely here. We've got people that decide, 'OK, California is not the place for me, but I want to be close, so they move here.' So, there's a lot of opportunity for us continuing to go forward, and that reflects in our numbers. We're continuing to see growth, we're seeing a lot of investment in our startups—1.4 billion [dollars] last year, which is the highest, 10 times more than last year. That's outside money coming in to support the companies growing here. That's organic growth. So, we're seeing the kinds of growth that really are important for the next generation and for the future of our economy.
Roedel: Thanks for coming in, Mike.
Kazmierski: My pleasure. Thanks for the invite.