Small, but growing Fernley prepares to incorporate

FERNLEY, Nev. - It's 10:30 on a cold fall morning and residents are beginning to wander into the post office to collect their mail.

Senior citizen Neta Jones trudges past the tumbleweeds along the highway and then walks slowly up the sidewalk to the entrance. Patricia Kearns drives her truck past the Wigwam Restaurant, Lola's Chair beauty shop, Rico's Tacos and Fred's Fix-It auto shop before heading into the parking lot.

Like everywhere else, the talk here is about the Nov. 7 election. But Fernley residents are not in a tizzy over the Bush-Gore deadlock. They have something more important to debate.

On Election Day, Fernley residents voted 56 percent to 44 percent to incorporate their community of more than 8,000.

Next July 1 - after voters elect a council and a mayor and decide whether to convert the local members of the Lyon County Sheriff's Department into their Police Department - Fernley officially becomes Nevada's 19th city.

''I voted no,'' said Mary Khalar, who moved here from the Bay area two years ago. ''I think we will have to pay high taxes. We moved here because it is a lot less expensive than California and we could have horses and cows.''

Kearns, a Los Angeles transplant, said she is happy about the incorporation.

''Fernley is growing so fast we had to incorporate. Maybe we will get better services. Growth is going to come whether we like it or not. It is better we control it ourselves.''

This is no Grover's Corners, N.H., with neat row houses and white picket fences. Fernley is a hodgepodge of buildings. Old trailer courts are situated along Main Street near new shopping centers. Horses graze in grassy fields under cottonwood trees. The House of Pain tattoo parlor is across the street from the Fernley Chamber of Commerce.

Fernley won't win any urban planning awards, but residents like it just fine.

Over his morning cup of hot tea at the Wigwam, Lyon County Commissioner LeRoy Goodman said merchants are talking of building a new downtown district around a theme.

''You get better planning with incorporation,'' he said. ''It's a new era, exciting for Fernley.''

Goodman moved here from Virginia City 35 years ago to take a job teaching at the local high school. Everybody knew each other by name back then, when Fernley was just a struggling farming community.

Wigwam owner Mary Royels remembers the time in the 1960s when she could not get an $8,000 loan to expand her then-tiny hamburger business.

The only bankers were 30 miles away in Reno, and they weren't loaning anything to Fernley.

But about five years ago, Joe and Patty Waide acquired a 4,500-acre private industrial park on the east side of town and started attracting businesses, very large businesses.

Two years ago amazon.com opened a mammoth book distribution center in the industrial park. It is only one of more than a dozen huge businesses in Fernley.

Publishing giant Quebecor prints the Sears catalog and ''Parade,'' a Sunday newspaper supplement, in its Fernley outlet. Honeywell, MSC and Trek have businesses just down the block.

The businesses were attracted by the relatively cheap land and Fernley's transportation hub location. The city is just outside the Reno metropolitan area along Interstate 80. The Union Pacific Railroad runs close to the industrial park.

''The businesses have raised the income level and brought jobs to Fernley,'' Goodman said. ''People who were commuting to Reno are staying here now.''

He said Trek, a deck manufacturer, pays employees about $15 per hour and benefits. Others pay in the $10 an hour range. Before the industrial growth, Fernley's businesses generally paid minimum wage.

The drive for incorporation was led by Fernley residents Kevin and Debra Brazell. Kevin Brazell said residents were tired of driving 45 miles to the county seat at Yerington for building permits and business licenses.

''The county has done a good job, but we need more things than they can give us,'' he said. ''We are doubling in population every five years and we need to have local people making decisions.''

Goodman and other county commissioners unanimously backed the incorporation effort. He maintains cityhood will reduce the layers of government in Fernley.

He also expects the city will pick up about $650,000 in state tax revenue that otherwise would have gone to the county.

The leading incorporation opponent was lifelong resident and Fernley Town Board Chairman David Stix Jr.

''We were operating very efficiently with the town board for the taxpayers,'' he said. ''It was going along smoothly.''

But after the voters spoke, Stix had a change of heart. He will be a candidate for Fernley mayor.

''If you can't beat them, join them,'' Stix said jokingly. ''I accept the voters' decision. I am now completely backing incorporation.''

He maintains there will be extra expenses with cityhood. Stix said the city must set up its own planning department and hire a city clerk. But he expects the community will retain its rural atmosphere.

The town board has prepared a master plan that will allow a build-out to about 30,000 residents over 20 years and still leave open space.

''We want to maintain what drew the citizens here in the first place,'' Stix said.

''Fernley's growth is starting to flatten out. The population peak has come.''

State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle said the population was 8,030 in 1999 and will increase to about 11,100 in 2010.

Over the past 39 years, the Wigwam has grown from little more than a hole in the wall to the town's primary local gathering place. More than a restaurant, the building is a museum of Indian artifacts and western paintings.

''We couldn't have made it without the growth,'' Royels said.

Still, she said a small town closeness remains.

''If something happens here and my husband is out of town, someone fixes it for me,'' Royels said. ''People care.''

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