What the Himalayas were to Shangri-La—a shield from harm—so gold has been to Elko, Nev. This city has thrived the past two years.
"They call it the town the recession forgot," says local Mary Haigwood.
Elko, about 300 miles east of Reno, sits astride the biggest gold deposit ever found in North America: the Carlin Trend. It is 5 miles wide and 40 miles long. Over 50 million troy ounces of gold have been produced here, more than came from California's fabled Gold Rush.
As the metal's price has risen, mining giants, including Newmont and Barrick, have kept hiring, even as employers elsewhere in the U.S. were laying off. Unemployment, says Barrick spokesman Louis Schack, is low.
"We employ about 3,600 people in Nevada, and the majority reside in Elko. We've added several hundred new jobs in recent years," Schack said.
Since the 1970s, the industry has pumped some $6 billion into Nevada infrastructure, most of it going to mines in or around Elko. The area's population has risen from 7,000 to close to 50,000.
As gold's price spirals upward, deposits of low grade ore previously uneconomical to work are being worked. Mothballed mines have restarted operations. With gold trading at a record high of more than $1,300 an ounce and forecast to hit $1,450 in 2011, the town is booming -- literally.
In vast open-pit mines, explosions reduce rock to rubble, and 240-ton capacity dump trucks on 63 inch tires lug it off for processing.
Locals follow the fluctuations of the gold market the way folks in Hershey, Pa., follow cocoa futures.
"Everybody watches the price of gold," says Jerry White, general manager of Dale White Motors, the town's Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Toyota dealership. When the price rises, the mines hire, and White Motors sells more vehicles, mostly pickups.
"If you're an employee of the mining industry," says White, "there's a lot of money to be made here."
He means not just in the mines, but at sub-contractors and at businesses selling equipment or support services, such as CopCo (heavy equipment, drilling), Ram Enterprises (conveyor belts), and SMD (specialists in small mines). White calls Elko a "high blue-collar" town. Average household income here is $68,000 a year.
In January, Bay Area attorney Ken Odel dropped by on his motorcycle to attend Elko's annual Cowboy Poetry Festival. Odel first visited Elko 20 years ago. The difference?
"Night-and-day. There's practically a labor shortage. Anybody who comes here can find a job. If you're a competent secretary or accountant--let alone an engineer--you can walk right in," Odel said. "It's not Manhattan, but it's the biggest and most prosperous town around."
At Elko's airport Odel noticed a $50 million Mitsubishi private jet parked on the tarmac.
In Reno and Las Vegas the housing bubble may have burst. Not here. Foreclosures, says Barrick's Schack, are few. There's even been some growth in housing. A nice home goes for $100,000.
Scott Ygoa, 44, worked in Elko's mines for 16 years, first at Barrick as an equipment operator, later as a supervisor. He saved his money and now owns the best Basque restaurant in town, the Star. (Before gold boomed, Elko was mostly a ranching town, home to Basque sheep herders.)
"Gold made it possible for me to have this place," Ygoa says. "Without the mines, it could be really bad here, just like the rest of Nevada. But the mines are going full-bore."
New ones have opened up, and the Star's business has gotten busier. Ygoa now sells more filet mignon and more cold-water lobster from Australia.
The arts, too, have benefitted.
"Gold is the name of the game," says Hal Cannon, founder of the Cowboy Poetry Festival. The institution that puts it on, the Western Folklife Center, looks to contributions from the mines to keep its poets parsing.
"As gold thrives, Elko thrives," says Cannon.
It's not as if Elko hasn't seen tough times. When gold's price tumbled in the late 1990s, the town suffered: The mines laid people off. Stores downtown were boarded up. Today, though, gold's warm glow bathes every business. At Mona's Ranch, a legal brothel on Third Street, a sign says: "Now Hiring."