"Sisolak All-In On Innovation Zones," blared a Reno Gazette - Journal headline last weekend, and I wondered why the governor is so enthusiastic about Blockchains' effort to create a 67,000-acre semi-autonomous zone within Storey County.
My friend and fellow columnist Jim Hartman answered my question recently when he revealed that Blockchains CEO Jeffrey Berns "made a $10,000 maximum contribution to Sisolak in 2018" and an additional $50,000 contribution to the governor's political action committee. But Berns didn't stop there. In 2019 he contributed $50,000 to the State Democratic Party.
Next, Berns contributed $10,000 to State Treasurer Zach Conine in 2020 and $60,000 to Conine's political action committee in 2020. "Conine has been deeply involved in Sisolak's economic development legislative agenda," Hartman wrote.
In addition, the Blockchains CEO contributed a total of $34,500 to 11 state lawmakers, primarily Democrats. Draw your own conclusions.
And now, Berns wants to establish a Blockchains "innovation zone" within Storey County, subject to legislative approval. Gov. Sisolak loves the idea. "Innovation zones are a unique and bold idea that I understand will not be received immediately with open arms," he told the RGJ, "but it is my hope . . . (that) we can have an open, honest, productive conversation on how this could work."
Gov. Sisolak stressed that innovation zones "are more like sub-governing communities, and not company towns." Blockchains proposes the creation of a "smart city" based on the company's technology that would use "stablecoin," a crypto-currency like Bitcoins, for all transactions and digitalize the records of the smart city's 30,000+ residents. To me, it sounds like something right out of "1984," if you remember that prescient book.
Blockchains' smart city would have its own fire and police departments, and would eventually control its own elections, leaving Storey County on the outside looking in. The futuristic city would also have its own courts and schools. However, if Blockchains had its own police department, I think that would be like the fox guarding the henhouse.
Jon Ralston's respected Nevada Independent said "the 'innovation zones' promoted by Sisolak would create a semi-autonomous county at the behest of Blockchains," adding that the governor sees innovation zones "as one element of an economic development program to create 200,000 jobs and help dig Nevada out of a crushing, pandemic-driven recession." Blockchains argues that "existing rules governing municipalities are too inflexible for the kind of revolutionary project the company envisions." Well maybe, but the Legislature should take a close look at this "revolutionary" proposal.
Storey County commissioners last Tuesday passed a resolution opposing "separatist governing control" over portions of the county — innovation zones, that is — while indicating a willingness "to work with the company on its bid to build a futuristic smart city in the desert." My friend, Carson City Assemblyman PK O'Neill, told me that he thinks innovation zones, as currently proposed, "would set a terrible precedent in our established manner of governance," adding that "bringing businesses to Nevada is always something we strive to do, but many questions remain unanswered. We need more information."
Blockchains is located within the sprawling 107,000-acre Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in the Northern Nevada desert ten miles east of Reno. TRIC advertises itself as "the largest industrial park in the world" and is also home to huge Home Depot and Walmart warehouses and distribution centers, a Panasonic electronics facility, the Tesla Gigafactory, a Switch "campus" and the world-famous Mustang Ranch brothel, now owned and operated by Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman, who is the public spokesman for the TRIC.
Bottom line: Our Legislature should give the governor's innovation zones proposal the close scrutiny it deserves.
Guy W. Farmer, a retired diplomat, follows Northern Nevada politics closely.