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Town in a Time Warp: Lovelock, Nev., Looks for Its Future Behind Bars

ASSOCIATED PRESS

This tiny rural town has been locked in a time warp for so long, community leaders can only hope a sprawling building surrounded by fences and razor wire will restart the clock of economic progress.

So far, the new $45-million medium-security prison on the eastern outskirts of town has spurred a housing crunch and mild optimism among business owners.

“Hopefully we’ll see a little more interest in the business community . . . more of an incentive for people to invest in the community,” said David Ayoob, chairman of the Pershing County Commission.

For nearly 25 years, downtown has teetered on the brink. A block from the city’s unique round courthouse, the Windmill and Felix’s--two casinos that once anchored the hub of downtown at the community’s only stoplight--have been boarded up for more than a decade. The town’s only drygoods store, Sprouse-Reitz, shut down two years ago.

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“It looks like time left Lovelock,” Ayoob observed from his clothing store just down the street.

The opening of the prison has been a long time coming. Completed in 1993 and originally scheduled to open the same year, Gov. Bob Miller put the facility in mothballs when the state lacked the money to operate it.

Bolstered by a hefty surplus in the coffers this year and get-tough-on-crime laws passed by the 1995 Nevada Legislature, the prison is almost ready for business. The Legislature also approved a $30-million expansion that eventually will more than double Lovelock’s capacity.

The first of 500 inmates were to have arrived Aug. 1, but the prison’s official opening was delayed because of last-minute details.

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There’s no question, though, that they are coming. Nearly 200 employees already are on the job, and town officials say the prison’s $7-million annual payroll can only mean good things for Lovelock.

Although the prison’s long-term effects on the town remain to be seen, it has launched an immediate run on real estate.

“It’s pretty desperate around here,” said Pam Gierhart of Century 21-Circle R Real Estate. “There’s a definite housing shortage.

“The rentals are all full, as far as I can confirm,” she said, adding that the office, a branch of the Century 21 office in Fallon 60 miles away, opened in January because of the potential business from incoming prison workers.

“We’re showing quite a bit of activity,” said Gene Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Realty. “Of course, we don’t have much to offer.”

Johnson and others said new housing developments are in the works, but it will take time before they are available and the housing market evens out with demand.

“It’s about time,” said Mayor Ray Espinoza, an accountant. Like other business people, he believes the prison will provide a stable economic base needed for the community to shed stagnation and better withstand the vagaries of agriculture and mining, the area’s main industries.

“It’s going to get better,” Espinoza said.

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“We’re expecting once things get settled, more retail and service businesses opening up,” he said. “The demand for more services and more products . . . will generate more opportunities for young adults to make a living here.”

Pat Smith, owner of a gasoline-minimart, agreed. “It’s going to help the community, I am sure,” she said. “But how much I really don’t know. The payroll circulating will be really good.”

Even compared with other rural towns, Lovelock is lacking a lot. There is neither a movie theater nor a drug store, although residents can fill prescriptions at the Pershing County General Hospital.

Dry cleaning can be dropped off on Thursdays at Ayoob’s, where it is picked up, taken to Elko and returned the following week.

To prepare for new residents and to help lure the prison here, the Pershing County School District in 1990 approved a $9-million bond issue to build a new elementary school and refurbish the high school and middle school.

Supt. Daniel Fox, whose first teaching job was at the DeSoto Correctional Institution in Florida, believes the expense and the prison will pay off.

“Whereas the drought has hurt us before and mining is up and down based on the prices of precious metals . . . this should be a stable economic basis for the community,” he said. The school district will operate a high-school equivalency program at the prison.

Local officials, however, concede the prison alone will not lift the community out of depression.

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“I look at it as a stepping stone,” Ayoob said. “It’s going to help, but it’s not our salvation.”

Said Realtor Gene Johnson, “It won’t be stupendous. But we’ve been in the doldrums so long, anything is going to help.”


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