Publisher's Note: Why the population drop?

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By Tom McDonald

We’re in God’s country. Beautiful land, good people, rich in culture and diversity, with a live-and-let-live approach to getting along.

So why are more people leaving than coming in?

Recently released U.S. Census data show that Las Vegas and San Miguel County had a net loss of people last decade. The city lost 812 and the county 733. Las Vegas lost 5.6 percent of its population while San Miguel County took a 2.5 percent hit.

There goes the theory that Las Vegas’ population is only dropping because people are just moving a few miles to the countryside. That’s true in some cases, but the numbers indicate that most of the time that’s not what is happening.

More often, people are leaving this area for places like Rio Rancho — which, by the way, the census shows to be the fastest-growing city in the state.

Of course, a drop of 812 people living in Las Vegas’ population means that a lot more than that moved out, since many others moved in. Statistically, when my family of four moved here (in 2004) 4.224 people moved out.

Does anyone remember a quarter of a person deciding to leave town?

OK, I’m being silly. But I’m serious when I say that I think there are three big reasons why our community is losing population. The first reason is a national trend, the second is obvious, and the third is very divisive, but true nevertheless.

The national trend is that urban areas (counting the suburbs) have generally been growing in population for years, while rural areas have been shrinking. There are a lot of reasons for that, with one in particular stretching over more than a century. When industry and manufacturing became bigger than agriculture, people gravitated toward the cities. That’s where the jobs were. And are.

Which brings me to the most obvious reason for Las Vegas’ declining population — the lack of economic opportunity. And it’s more of a problem here than in many small communities. A lot of small towns and cities have actually maintained or grown their populations by replacing the agricultural jobs of yesteryear with 20th and 21st century opportunities. Small manufacturing facilities, rock-solid mom-and-pop retail stores, and vibrant business districts keep a lot of small towns across the U.S. economically healthy, but here, it seems we have more failures than successes.

Part of our problem is insufficient resources, with water topping the list. We’re limited in the kinds of enterprises we can attract. In fact, those limitations have led some people to conclude that we shouldn’t grow; a larger economy, they surmise, would only increase the never-ending worries we have over moisture, the watershed, and water rights. I think that’s why progress in this town is such a controversial subject.

Which brings me to the third reason why we’re losing population. We are a divided community. Even the Gallinas River, that modest waterway flowing through the heart of our city, divides us between West and East.

And that’s just the most obvious division. There are also cultural, economic, social and political divides, which might shift from time to time, but they never go away.

And there’s another division that stems from a community character flaw. Too many of our leaders demand credit for good works, and if they’re not going to get the credit, they’re not going to help.

There’s a saying I’ve heard, attributed to many people: “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit.”

Here in Las Vegas, we are seldom amazed. If we were, maybe more people would see this as God’s country.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.