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It's Been A Decade Since Nevada Fell Into An Economic Abyss

Associated Press

Ten years ago this week, the spectacular death of Lehman Brothers began the financial chaos that preceded the Great Recession.

Lehman — and much of the investment community — was highly leveraged and overexposed to a sagging real estate market. That led to a financial crisis, a bailout of Wall Street, and the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

And it hit Las Vegas harder than almost anywhere else.

The city had enjoyed years of breakneck growth fueled by resort and home construction, easy credit, and optimism.

Former Congresswoman Shelley Berkley remembers the heady days before the crisis.

"Business was booming," she recalled, "We were opening a school every three weeks. The real estate market was hot as a pistol."

At the time, she represented the fastest growing congressional district in the country. 

Berkley remembers driving along the Las Vegas Strip at that the time and looking at the City Center project and wondering how long the explosive growth could continue. 

Mike PeQueen, managing director for HighTower Las Vegas a wealth management firm, also remembers that time in Las Vegas history. 

"It was a time unlike any other," he said, "It truly was a community on steroids for a few years."

He said even when he would go to work early in the morning the freeway would be packed with construction workers making their way to their construction sites.

At one time, there were 44 or more condominium towers planned and announced around Southern Nevada, he said. Only a handful was actually built.

But like the old saying goes - what goes up, must come down and in Southern Nevada, the 'down' was especially harsh.

Berkley remembers the first inkling she got that something was wrong was at a meeting of realtors. The group had asked her to speak at the meeting and they were telling her the housing market was starting the fray.

"I remember that was such a wake-up call and reality check for me," she said, "Then by the time I got back to Washington, things started unraveling nationwide."

PeQueen got his wake-up call while on a trip out of the country when he heard Lehman Brothers had gone under.

By the time he got back from his trip, he was working for a new company because his employer at the time Merrill Lynch had been purchased by Bank of America.

PeQueen explained that everyone understands the stock market goes up and down but many people didn't realize that real estate does the same thing only over a much longer period of time. 

People didn't realize the price of real estate was not going to continue to go up and up and up.

"The dream dies hard," he said, "And in Southern Nevada, the dream of doing a deal, doing a real estate deal, not simply owning your own home but owning multiple homes or doing a commercial development was incredibly common."

And for a time, PeQueen said you couldn't not make money on real estate in Nevada but because real estate can be difficult to liquidate - people got stuck.

When the housing crisis and the credit crunch hit, the economy was paralyzed and unemployment skyrocketed, hitting almost 15 percent in 2010 as the area led the nation in foreclosures.

Many of Nevada’s recent development initiatives were, in some fashion, a response to recession. Those include luring Tesla’s Gigafactory to the Reno area, bringing infrastructure to the Apex industrial park in North Las Vegas, and allowing Clark County to divert tax revenue to the Raiders stadium and the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion.

Tom Harris is the director of UNR's Center for Economic Development.

He said many people thought the state was recession-proof before the crisis hit. 

Now, as the state continues to recover, he sees the impact diversifying the economy has made in Northern Nevada.

"It has had spinoffs into Lyon County and Reno," he said, "There's been other developments such as manufacturing sector is moving in. It has been causing a rise in rents and the value of homes."

The state also invested additional resources in education, including founding a medical school at UNLV.

Many of the diversification efforts were proposed in an influential 2011 report from the Brookings Mountain West think tank at UNLV, which itself was founded in the wake of the recession.

"We had to change the numbers, in the middle of the analysis on the projections because of how badly things were going," Robert Lang with Brookings Mountain West, told KNPR's State of Nevada, "And the numbers we had to change the most were for Las Vegas."

Now, 10 years later as the economic engine of Southern Nevada roars again there are concerns that we're headed down the same path. PeQueen says he doesn't think we are because many people vividly remember the pain of that time.

And while the country as a whole learned a lot from the Great Recession, he wishes we hadn't done it such a painful way.

"While we've learned important things from it, I think the tuition was extraordinarily high," he said, "I think the financial and emotional impact to our community was staggering and we're still paying that. I think we could have learned these lessons in a cheaper way."

Shelley Berkley, former congresswoman; Tom Harris, director, UNR Center for Economic Development; Robert Lang, Brookings Mountain West at UNLV; Mike PeQueen, managing director, HighTower Las Vegas

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.