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Wed November 23, 2011
Boom Town, U.S.A.
In the small-town of Elko, ambition looks like high-heel suede booties on the floor of the auto shop at the local high school.
Brandi and Kaylee look like the Olsen twins. And they're the best auto-shop students at Elko High. The girls have a plan. Everyday out the school window, they see trucks heading up to the gold mines. Day and night. So, the girls figure, why not open a truck repair shop after they graduate?
"In Elko we've been really blessed and really lucky to actually have a good economy," Kaylee says. "We can actually have our hopes and dreams."
Elko is one of the rare Nevada towns that's doing great. The town, which sits in the middle of Nevada's gold mining country, has boomed as the price of gold doubled over the past few years.
We visited one of the mines that's driving the boom: Barrick Goldstrike. The mine looks like a giant hole the ground, like the Grand Canyon — if the Grand Canyon were black and dusty and filled with explosives.
At the mine, you can't actually see glittery gold. It's all microscopic flecks buried deep underground that have to be crushed, baked, and squeezed out of the rock. It's an expensive process that's only worth it if the price of gold is high enough.
And if the price of gold drops too much, or if the costs of extracting it are too high, Barrick Goldstrike's billion-dollar operation grinds to a halt. And the money stops flowing into Elko.
That's why not everyone in Elko is as hopeful as Brandy and Kaylee. Lacey Foster, age 20, has one of the newest apartments in town. Her husband has a job at a mine. Although Foster is happy to move out of the motel, she's thinking beyond Elko.
"For now, for the next six months, we're just going to live here," she says. "And then hopefully we're going to buy a place somewhere else, in case the mining goes down."
Foster says she's seen it happen before. "The gold boom gets big, and then out of nowhere, it just stops," she says.
You don't have to look far to see evidence of this: Elko is surrounded by ghost towns that cleared out when the gold ran out.
Elko's mayor, Chris Johnson, says he's trying to run the town like it could crash at any moment. The city doesn't borrow much, and makes a lot of payments in cash
He's not the only one. Johnson says that he can't even get private developers to build new housing tracts in the town because few banks want to lend money to build houses in Nevada, even if it's a gold mining town.
But this is what you want from a boom. The thrill of success, with the understanding that it can't last forever.