Unemployment rate: 7.9%
Largest employers: Barrick (ABX) and Newmont (NEM) mining companies
We'd mentioned little Elko and its population of less than 20,000 about a week ago as an example of a town whose one biggest asset -- the gold it's sitting on -- got it through the recession. While that precious commodity has kept Elko's unemployment rate at roughly half that of Nevada as a whole, it's also a volatile and finite resource than takes as much as it gives.
Gold's trading at roughly $1,490 an ounce, which is a whole lot better than the $561.50 it was fetching five years ago, but well down from a high of nearly $1,565 per ounce in April. Unfortunately for gold and, eventually, for Elko, a good economy is bad for gold prices.
Few places know this better than Elko, where plummeting gold prices dropped to less than $265 per ounce between 1999 and 2001 and forced the mining companies to cut back on jobs and the city to cut back on services. The town has tried to expand its rail and airport access as well as such services as retirement housing and tourist centers, but gold remains the primary focus -- especially for Elko's closet industries, including its four brothels."Gold is a boom and bust industry," Curtis Calder, Elko's city manager, told Fortune in 2009. "When the rest of the economy drops, the price of gold goes up. We're pretty vibrant right now." That's the best advice a boom or bubble town can get: Savor the now. -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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