by Scott Neuffer
The two largest construction projects in Carson Valley represent massive public investments in the future.
The remodeled Douglas High School and the brand new Douglas County Community & Senior Center will certainly change the physical landscape of the valley and directly impact students, senior citizens and other community members when doors of both facilities open in 2015.
But beyond direct services, the projects are bound to change the economic landscape of the valley as well. A cutting-edge high school and an expansive community center can enhance efforts to recruit new companies to the area and, simultaneously, can strengthen existing businesses, according to community leaders.
“They stand to have some pretty significant positive financial benefits,” said Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bill Chernock. “The type of benefits that won’t be seen the month the facilities open up. There are going to be long-term benefits to the people and the economic status of the county.”
That their respective construction schedules overlap to some degree is coincidental: the projects stem from different political efforts, different elected boards and different local governments.
The taxpayer, however, is footing the bill for both.
The high school remodel in Minden is the direct result of the 2008 continuation school bond. When voters approved the measure during the general election of that year, they permitted the Douglas County School District to retain a 10-cent property tax rate previously used for debt service. The extension of the rate allowed the district to issue bonds in order to fund various capital improvement projects, such as the renovation of Gardnerville Elementary School and an extension at Piňon Hills Elementary.
As members of the KIDS Committee, the volunteer squad that campaigned for the measure, often point out, the extension didn’t raise taxes, and a defeat at the ballot box probably wouldn’t have lowered taxes, as state law allows other local taxing districts to assume unused levies.
In June of this year, Douglas County school board members approved a $17.9 million budget for the project, coming from bond proceeds and pay-as-you-go cash rolled over from other projects. Combined with soft costs, such as design and engineering work, the total price tag is closer to $22 million.
With more than 100,000 square feet to be renovated or built anew, the Douglas High remodel is easily the largest expenditure of the bond program thus far. Not only will Douglas High get a new, street-front set of classrooms, but it will see a serious makeover to the commons area, kitchen, big gym, small gym, JROTC headquarters, and the career and technical wing of the school.
Construction will begin in spring 2014. The district hopes for a tight turnaround from contractor Turner Construction. The goal, after nearly 20 years of a seventh-ninth-grade middle school configuration, is to have the freshmen class of 2015 assume their rightful place in the halls of a sleek, state-of-the-art high school campus. The old caricature of a freshman cowering in the locker room may give way to that of a tech-savvy millennial who wields high-speed internet at his fingertips to further engage the curriculum . That’s the idea, anyhow.
The community and senior center in Gardnerville is also the product of a long, hard political battle. Finding money was a little more complicated than the school bond. Separate funding plans were shot down by voters in 2004 and 2006. The project not only survived but was identified as a top priority in Douglas County’s 2010 Economic Vitality Plan.
In August 2011, Douglas County commissioners approved a .5 percent increase to the county’s utility operator license fee in order to fund future operations of the yet-to-be-built center. The increase applied to telecommunications, wireless phone, and electricity and natural gas providers. Utility companies passed the fee hike onto consumers when the law took effect in 2012. Depending on the size of one’s utility expenditures, the increase probably cost consumers an extra $10-$20 a year.
But the measure was estimated to generate $425,000 annually for ongoing maintenance and operations of the new center. Not long after passage, the county helped create a nonprofit foundation to fund capital equipment and capital maintenance through private donations.
Actual construction was another matter. County staff pieced together enough future revenue from existing sales and property taxes to issue about $14 million in general-obligation and medium-term bonds. The county also utilized approximately $3.2 million from its medical indigent fund reserves for the nursing and senior day care portions of the facility. Additionally, $1 million in room tax fund reserves were secured to help fund the balance of the project.
Although property and sales tax rates haven’t technically gone up, the new $18.5 million center represents a sizeable redirection of public money, leaving less to spend on other capital improvements down the road.
Core Construction, the contractor that also rebuilt GES, is expected to have the 75,000-square-foot facility completed by early 2015. When the dust settles, the new center will house a 300-person dining room, a senior day care and nursing center, a preschool, program activity rooms, gymnasium and fitness areas, and administrative offices. As construction continues on Waterloo Lane, the old caricature of a cramped, out-of-date senior center will give way to a large, soaring, elegant structure more than capable of housing the diverse interests and needs of the multiple generations who call Carson Valley home… That’s the idea, anyhow.
When a CEO visits a new area for potential relocation of their company, they look at available workforce, at site and building development, and at supply chain and distribution logistics.
But according to Lisa Granahan, Douglas County Economic Vitality Manager, that same CEO and their spouse will also look at recreational opportunities, community amenities, and public education.
Granahan asserts that the new community and senior center will significantly expand the valley’s amenities.
“We have an awesome swim center,” she said. “I think the community and senior center will be just as awesome.”
She said the center will serve as a gathering place for community members, much like the Kahle Community Center at Lake Tahoe serves the needs of Stateline residents.
“It’s expected,” she said. “We have our facility at the Lake, and people want to know where our facility in the Valley is. It’s an expected amenity.”
In the high school expansion, Granahan said, that same CEO will see a commitment to K-12 education. They’ll see a benefit to their own children but also a future recruiting center for their company.
As part of the high school project, district officials, county leaders, and companies like GE Energy in Minden have pooled resources to devote the new two-story set of classrooms fronting Highway 88 to science, technology, engineering and math. Imagine fully wired science labs, interactive media, and a rigorous yet practical curriculum with guest lecturers and real-life projects.
“When businesses are looking at where they want to be, very high on their priority list is quality education,” said Granahan. “Many expect four-year high schools, so it’s neat this project will allow ninth-graders to come back. One thing we’ve been focusing on is the potential to really elevate STEM education, particularly with the technology cluster of businesses here.”
Granahan was referring to several big-hitting firms located in the Valley, such as GE Energy, ANC Precision, and Bently Enterprises.
“Many folks they’re going to be recruiting need that focus on science, technology, engineering and math,” she said. “For precision manufacturers and tech businesses like GE, this will create a training ground for future engineers, precision welders, those types of things.”
Douglas County Superintendent Lisa Noonan likened the new STEM center to a career ladder, with rungs leading to the University of Nevada, Reno, Western Nevada College, and local companies. Depending on a student’s ambitions, they may want to advance to higher education, using their high school coursework as the foundation, or they may want to enter the high-paying manufacturing workforce immediately, earning their field endorsement at the high school level.
Even before construction begins, the project is reenergizing this relationship between business and education. The Northern Nevada Development Authority, for example, recently paid for two math and technology teachers at the high school to earn engineering credit under Project Lead the Way, a national STEM education initiative. Another program, Right Skills Now, is working with WNC and Douglas High’s welding division to find qualified interns for local manufacturing positions.
“We can support the local economy and local business and give kids confidence at the same time,” said Noonan.
Bill Chernock, executive director of the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce, also sees tremendous value in the high school remodel.
“When we’re out recruiting businesses, we often run into a negative perception of Nevada schools,” he said. “As we all know, Douglas County schools are far above the average in the state of Nevada. Anything we can do to make the physical plan at the high school better and raise the profile of a very good school system is going to make recruiting new businesses and recruiting more people to work for existing businesses easier. It will bring in more people, more jobs, more discretionary spending and, in that demographic way, will help the economy across the board.”
Chernock said the community and senior center will draw prospective retirees into the local economy.
“The senior center is definitely going to make the valley a more attractive place for retirees who relocate,” he said. “As we know, that’s a group of citizens that tend to have pretty good income, pretty steady income, and a good amount of discretionary income. By making us more attractive, we’re bringing in more people to shop, to use professional services, and to go out to restaurants. It can definitely have an impact.”
He maintains the potential economic benefits of the community center outweigh the costs.
“There was a lot of debate about using up the bonding capacity, about instituting the extra fee, but the commissioners, and a lot of people in the community, thought this was a good investment,” he said. “I think chances are it will turn out to be a good investment. It’s going to do terrific things for the quality of life for all generations in the Valley.”
More than the sum of their parts, the two projects reflect the aspirations of a community.
Like Granahan, Noonan compared the new projects to the Carson Valley Swim Center, which, over time, has become a world-class facility, a flagship institution on which residents can hang their hats.
As every property owner in the valley knows, however, the swim center isn’t free of charge. It has a separate tax rate and a separate governing board of elected trustees. Somewhere down the line, residents decided it was a wise investment and committed resources to its construction and operation.
“I would put these projects in the same category,” Noonan said. “Even if someone doesn’t have a child or grandchild in the new STEM center, I hope they can be proud that it’s part of our community.”
Noonan believes the projects will have a synergistic effect, complementing each other and binding the greater populace.
“I think they send a powerful message,” she said, “that mental message of what we believe in and what we support.”