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The Land of Throwaway Real Estate

Aug 3, 2007

I recently spent the better part of three days in the eastern Nevada town of Ely. For those of you not current on your Nevada geography, Ely is the largest town on a 400-mile stretch of Highway 50 through Nevada and Utah known as the "Loneliest Highway in America."

In other words, Ely is a small town smack in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town is more than 70 miles away.

Ely clearly is not thriving. Nor is it dying. It appears to be muddling along thanks mostly to resource extraction industries and outdoor tourism. What struck me about Ely is the local concept of land all real estate, for that matter as a disposable commodity. The streets of Ely are lined with abandoned houses, schools, gas stations, restaurants, storefronts, churches and motels. Some appear to have been boarded up since the Johnson administration. "Who owns this stuff?" I thought as I walked through town.

Yes, a number of older structures are still in use, including a middle school right downtown and some historic hotel/casinos where smoking is apparently mandatory. But these buildings mingle among those that are abandoned.

On the edge of town, naturally, are newer gas stations, motels and stores. Roughly two miles north of town is a fairly new manufactured home subdivision surrounded by a whole lot of sand.

Ely's supply of land would appear to be unlimited, and, of course, Nevada is famous for its minimalist approach to regulation. Which means that there is very little incentive for anyone to try to make use of all those abandoned buildings, even if Ely's economy were to somehow gain strength. So, I guess, those vacant buildings are going to sit there and rot for years and years to come. It's a depressing thought, especially when you consider the guy who owns a home or business next door.

In California, we have our share of neglected neighborhoods, downtowns and industrial districts. But, for the most part, real estate is not considered a disposable commodity. At some point, somebody or some entity is going to reinvest. Walking away forever is not an option. I find that thought encouraging.

- Paul Shigley

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