LAS VEGAS — Donna West could once name the homeowners on her affluent Las Vegas street. Then came the recession, the vacant homes, and the parade of anonymous renters.
"To me, the recession hasn't ended," said West, a 55-year-old retired state worker. "We have more foreclosures happening in my neighborhood than a year ago."
Across this hardest-hit Western state, a battle of perceptions is being waged over whether Nevada is on the edge of recovery, or still falling four years after the collapse of its mighty housing, tourism and construction industries.
It's a story unfolding across the nation, only in Nevada, it is worse because the state depends heavily on money spent by people from elsewhere. Nevada continues to top the nation in unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies rates.
"We are like somebody who is wearing a lead weight. We have jumped off the dock and finally stopped sinking, but that just means we are at the bottom of the sea," said Elliot Parker, an economist with the University of Nevada, Reno.
The tepid return of the gamblers and revelers who drive Nevada's economy has drawn cheers from government and business leaders, including Gov. Brian Sandoval. They point to rebounding convention attendance numbers and hotels rates as cash-bearing tourists from healthier states return to the Las Vegas Strip. The jobless rate has dipped slightly and unemployment benefit claims are down.
But the housing market remains in a free fall and workers are either fleeing the state or dropping out of the work force altogether. Half of all homes are now purchased with cash. The average home price in Las Vegas fell to $118,213 last month, down from $329,720 just four years ago.
Nationwide, the recession ended in 2009. But the recovery has been weak. Consumers are more reluctant to spend, banks are not lending as readily as before and developers have shied away from risky construction projects. All have combined to depress Nevada's tourism-dependent economy.
"Nevada is about a year behind the rest of the country or even more because we had much deeper, much bigger problems," Parker said. "We had a steep decline and we have a long way to go to get out of this."
Even so, some signs suggest the turnaround has begun.
Passenger counts at McCarran International Airport, one barometer of the city's success in attracting visitors, reached 3.7 million people in October, a 4.5 percent jump from the year before.
New unemployment claims more than doubled to 30,190 from January 2007 to January 2010. In all, more than 300,000 Nevadans received jobless benefits last year. The claims have since fallen to nearly 17,000 new applicants in September and 143,500 overall.
"Nevada is on the move again," Sandoval told business leaders recently. "We are seeing signs, some large, some small, of economic improvement."
Nevada's unemployment rate has improved from above 14 percent to just above 13 percent in the past year and new jobs have sprouted in the hospitality sector.
But the declining jobless rate can also partly be explained by the state's shrinking work force. Nevada had nearly 200,000 fewer workers in 2010 than it did in 2007, and that's despite a soaring population during those years.
"The dramatic losses that we saw throughout 2007 to roughly 2010 are behind us," said Bill Anderson, chief of the state employment office's research bureau. "Now we are at a point where we have essentially stabilized."
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