SPARKS, Nev. — Sex for sale aside, brothels here tend to be modest businesses: shoddy buildings kept out of sight in rural areas, on the outskirts of town or camouflaged in a thicket of cottonwood trees.
But the inconspicuous was thrust into the spotlight last month with the election of Lance Gilman, owner of the country’s first licensed brothel, to a seat on the Storey County Board of Commissioners.
“Nevadans don’t care about brothels," said Gilman, 68, proprietor of the Mustang Ranch. “It’s everybody else who gets so excited."
Storey County covers 262 square miles of high desert and sagebrush east of Reno, and Gilman, an industrial developer originally from San Diego, owns nearly 65 percent of the county.
On that land, Gilman and his business partner are creating what they bill as the largest industrial park in the world.
Gilman expects that once the project is complete, some 150,000 people will work in the park, nearly 40 times the county’s current population. Already 1,800 trucks arrive each day to Wal-Mart and PetSmart distribution centers here.
And at the edge of all that workaday commerce, just 17 miles from Reno, Gilman’s brothel traffics in after-hours pleasures.
Whether the product is sex, manufacturing or Internet server farms, Gilman is a free-market kind of guy. “I’m focused on keeping this place pro-business and not regulating our little county to death," he said.
Gilman is one of a new breed of brothel owners in Nevada, newcomers who made their fortunes in other industries and who are not afraid of publicity. He is believed to be the first brothel owner to be elected to public office in the state, and his run made some in the legal sex industry nervous.
George Flint, a lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Owners Association, said: “I’m of the old school, I believe the best way to survive in this business is to stay low profile. These new guys come in and assume that with legality comes acceptability, they don’t have an understanding of the industry’s fragileness."
Still, licensed brothels like the Mustang Ranch enjoy wide support across rural Nevada. More than half those surveyed in a statewide poll in 2011 said they thought prostitution should be legal.
“You can’t hold it against a person that they’re involved in a profession that’s been in existence since before Jesus walked around in his sandals," said Corrie Northan, 46, a bartender at the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, the county seat. “This state was formed from gambling, drinking and brothels and there’s no shame in that."
During his campaign, Gilman knocked on the doors of some 1,500 county residents, and he says just two people even mentioned his brothel and only to compliment him.