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Tiny Town Seeks Brighter Future, With Burning Man Lighting Way

Geography put Gerlach near Burning Man. Now Washoe County is looking at ways to use the festival as a catalyst for economic development in the tiny town.
Ken Lund, via Wikimedia Commons

Geography put Gerlach near Burning Man. Now Washoe County is looking at ways to use the festival as a catalyst for economic development in the tiny town.

Each August the Burning Man festival attracts 70,000 people to the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada.

That’s 350 times larger than the population of the nearest town, Gerlach, where business booms around the event. The rest of the year, though, things are slow.

The Washoe County Commission authorized spending $110,000 on an economic development plan to boost the fortunes of the old railroad and mining town.

“It’s a very unique community aside from the Burning Man event the dark night skies of Gerlach are amazing," Gabrielle Enfield, the grant administrator for Washoe County, told KNPR's State of Nevada. "There are numerous hot springs up there. There’s hunting. They have an artist culture. It’s such a beautiful, high desert, vast open space.”

Utah-based consultant Better City authored the report that suggests leveraging the connection between the town and the festival.

The study imagines a community built around Gerlach’s stock of vintage buildings with the possible addition of a tiny home development. It would hope to attract remote workers looking for elbow room, sunshine, and the Burning Man free-spirit vibe.

Kelby Bosshardt is with Better City. He said Gerlach is like a lot of rural towns in America. Agriculture, energy production and mining are changing and small towns dependant on those industries must change as well.

Bosshardt wants to see Gerlach leverage local assets and local talent to export services while the people who like living there stay where they are.

However, that would mean an upgrade in infrastructure that people in the city take for granted.

“Infrastructure investments are definitely part of the mix," he said, "And making sure the infrastructure is adequate to provide the quality of life for the residents who are there”

Gerlach started life in 1906 as a whistlestop on the Western Pacific Railroad, leading to the opening of a nearby gypsum mine. The town’s population peaked at 1,000 in the 1950s and sits at about 200 today following the mine’s 2011 closure.

It is that history that Assemblywoman Heidi Swank says can be used to bring in tourism dollars. Swank is with the Nevada Preservation Foundation.

She and other historic preservationists recently toured Gerlach and the near-by Empire. She said the town has several areas that are historically important not just to Nevada but to the country.

It also has several individual buildings that are significant, including buildings made out of railroad ties that were surplus from when the railroad was built.

“Along with all of these buildings there comes a lot of heritage tourism opportunities," Swank said, "We think that Gerlach could pull in folks from Reno for the weekend.” 

Following a town meeting about the potential for historic tourism and historic preservation, Swank said many people were skeptical about the idea but most were excited to know their town was home to some important buildings.

She said the overall feeling was residents wanted a balance. 

That is something echoed by resident Schatzi Gambrel. Gambrel has been living in Gerlach for four years. She moved to the town after attending Burning Man and falling in love with the tiny town's charm.

She said people want an economic boost but not at the expense of the lifestyle they love.

“If we can do moderate growth, and find a way to have year-round incomes coming through, I believe it will benefit the whole community,” she said.

Enfield said the next step is for the residents to decide what project listed in the economic development plan is their top priority. When that is determined, she'll work to get secure the funding for the project.  

Gabrielle Enfield, Washoe County grants administrator; Kelby Bosshardt, consultant; Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, Nevada Preservation Foundation; Elisabeth "Schatzi" Gambrel, Gerlach resident

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