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“Memo from the Middle” is an opinion column written by RGJ columnist Pat Hickey, a member of the Nevada Legislature from 1996 to 2016.
Nevada has a long history of welcoming dreamers to its desert. Mark Twain, Bugsy Siegel and Elon Musk all came here to plant their dreams in the Silver State’s sagebrush landscapes. The most recent dreamer to arrive is Blockchains CEO, Jeffrey Berns.
I spent time recently with the former Californian who made his millions as a consumer-protection lawyer and selling blockchain cryptocurrency. Like most California transplants, Jeff has fallen in love with Nevada. He told me, “There’s so much life out here, nature. From a business perspective, you can’t get anything done in California. Here in Nevada, we don’t get told we can’t do something. That spirit fits with me.”
He bristles at the comparison to Elon Musk and Tesla, saying; “We came into the state, bought all the land and haven’t asked for tax breaks. Instead, we believe that we should help find revenue streams for Nevada. I just need a place for other dreamers and thinkers to come and create.”
One treasure he couldn’t bring with him is water.
A quote often attributed to Mark Twain says, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” Berns knows the humorist’s quote well. “My plan is to approach water differently. I want to work together with stakeholders, including the local tribal leaders and find a way that everyone wins.”
One thing he hasn’t won so far is approval from the locals where he wants to build. The Storey County Commission recently voted to oppose his independent government plan for Blockchain LLC’s Innovation Zone and Smart City project. Berns says it didn’t surprise him.
“My hope is that we can find a path to ‘yes,’” he said. “Storey County doesn’t have the experience or the limberness to be able to build a smart city. Civil servants and politicians are risk-averse.”
In spite of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s support for the plan, Berns and Blockchains have a big challenge ahead of them. To tackle it, they’ve hired Nevada’s most powerful public relations firm, R&R Partners. Berns is optimistic about his chances for success because of the far-reaching scope of the plan.
“There is no place on the planet that has this kind of opportunity. We are creating this sandbox to try and work things out. Who knows what dreamers and thinkers will come to Nevada?”
Berns wouldn’t say if he has any pre-leases or seriously committed companies yet at Innovations Park, but says, “We have a list. If our legislation passes, we’ll start on the Smart City project at Painted Rock in late 2023. We’ll break ground on Innovation Park in 2022. We’ll begin building right away an underground bunker for secure data storage.”
It’s not clear how many Nevada lawmakers support his Innovation Zone legislation, but one Northern Nevada elected official is a fan of blockchain technology itself. Berns counts Reno’s Mayor Hillary Schieve as a supporter, saying, “Reno-Sparks is a perfect partner for us to do things with. I’m very hopeful because the Mayor of Reno understands blockchain technology. We’ve had a number of conversations and she gets it.”
Another Northern Nevada leader Jeff Berns hopes will get it is UNR’s President Brian Sandoval and his TMCC and WNC counterparts. Universities across the country are increasingly partnering with tech companies. Berns envisions education initiatives with Higher Ed and K-12, saying; “Yes, we’ve had conversations. We’ve created a blockchain coding curriculum that’s being tested in Nevada high schools. The goal is to get our kids ready for the jobs of the future.”
Speaking of the future, Berns believes his utopian-sounding plan will appeal to both domestic and foreign investors. Talking about vision, Berns draws from his own business background: “I’m a consumer protection lawyer by trade, which means I believe in owning your own identity and what that means for how people live, work and play. Companies that believe in our pro-consumer approach will come to the park. Korea, for instance, is the most innovative country on the planet. We’re hoping we can do things with companies from there.”
Berns sees himself in another entrepreneur with a wild dream — Walt Disney. His autonomous governance plan is modeled after Orlando’s Disney World. Berns told me; “Walt Disney created an amusement park with it’s own system of governance. I want to create an adult sandbox in Nevada for people to come and dream. We really need the local jurisdiction (Storey County) to move aside and allow us to create, utilizing this model.”
I’m not sure Jeff appreciated me bringing up that he was once quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Blockchains will either be the biggest thing ever — or, the most spectacular crash.” Berns is both philosophical and confident of his dream one day coming true, saying, “I don’t need the money, and I’m willing to take the risk. We’ve hired the best of the best to figure out how to draft legislation. If Nevada says ‘no,’ and they don’t want to do this, it may not be the most spectacular crash and burn ever, but it certainly would be a crash and burn.”
Blockchains’ “Innovation Zone” legislation is expected to drop any day in Carson City. The curtain will then be pulled back on his proposed high-tech land of Oz. Following public presentations will come scrutiny of a bill that may be as Fantasia-like to Nevada’s 63 citizen legislators as the Emerald City was to young Dorothy from Kansas.
Will Jeffrey Berns be among those rare breed of wizards whose dream in the Nevada desert actually succeeds? It may come down to something as pivotal as the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe allowing Blockchains’ water to be piped thru their tribal lands.
Twain was right. Finding whiskey may have been an easier pipe dream. Still, this is Nevada. It’s a place dreamers come and sometimes succeed.
Like I said, there have been a lot of dreamers in the Nevada desert.
RGJ columnist Pat Hickey served in the Nevada Legislature from 1996 to 2016.
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