Last summer, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s office and World Trade Center Utah launched the 25k Jobs Initiative, touring each of the 25 counties off the Wasatch Front to see first-hand what challenges and opportunities faced each of them.
This boots-on-the-ground effort to make good on Gov. Gary Herbert’s State of the State pledge to bring 25,000 jobs to Utah’s rural communities still has a long way to go before it realizes results, but Cox says they’re on the right track.
“For far too long the state has come up with ideas—we’ve got a new program for rural Utah—and it’s always top-down, but it never seemed to work. What we’re interested in is a bottom-up approach, and letting counties decide what they want to accomplish and finding ways to help the counties use the resources available to help them accomplish that,” Cox says. “We’re also looking for ways to expand the pie a little more holistically.”
Cox is no stranger to rural Utah—the Fairview resident has been involved in economic development in Sanpete County during terms on his city council and county commission—but he says it’s far too simplistic to think that understanding one county equates to understanding the challenges of all.
“We often talk about—and I’m guilty of this too—rural Utah as if it’s one large entity, as if it’s one big nebulous county off the Wasatch Front,” says Cox. “What you’ll learn by visiting these 25 counties is they’re all so different, with different opportunities and challenges, so we’re trying to drill down on a very local level in finding out how to help them succeed.”
One of the biggest differences between the 25k Initiative and previous efforts to stoke the economy in rural areas lies in the focus on individual counties and an approach that functions more as a partnership, rather than a blanket mandate. Each county has to form its own plan for economic development and determine what it needs to achieve that, and then it is responsible for making it happen. The state functions primarily as a facilitator, helping to secure the connections, funding and resources each county needs to execute those respective plans.
“It can’t just be a program that comes from the state to try to solve this,” says Cox.
“What we’re interested in is a bottom-up approach, and letting counties decide what they want to accomplish and finding ways to help the counties use the resources available to help them accomplish that.” – Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox
And the distribution of jobs brought by the 25k initiative is as important as making those jobs exist. “If all of those 25k jobs end up in St. George and Logan, we’ve failed. But if we get 20 jobs in Wayne County, it’s a big deal in Wayne County,” he says.
As the tour of Utah’s rural counties progressed, Cox says the governor felt strongly about getting more involved in the process by meeting with leadership from each of the counties.
So in December, the governor began holding meetings with each county and a cadre of economic development officials, including representatives from WTC Utah, EDC Utah, universities and other state and federal organizations as needed for specific counties. In Wayne County’s case, that included representatives from Utah State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says Adus Dorsey, director of economic development for Wayne County.
“The whole idea behind it is it’s going to be up to us to do the work. Granted, the governor’s office is going to put their weight behind it, but we’re going to have to do the work on the ground,” Dorsey says.
Wayne County prepared for its trek to the governor’s office by taking the ideas generated from the 25k visit in August to a community meeting in September, and then honing them throughout the fall. The result was a detailed list of ideas, challenges and what was needed to overcome them.
“It was excellent. Everyone was really receptive. We kind of patted ourselves on the back; we went in there really prepared,” Dorsey says. “We’ve got some challenges because of where we are. We’re pretty isolated. There’s a lot of benefits to that, too. I think the governor was impressed, and the commissioners were impressed with him, too. If he can put his authority out there—if he tells these guys we need their help, we’ve got it.”
Just 3 percent of land in Wayne County is privately owned; between federal and state property, public lands take up the rest. The county is also very remote, without an airport, railway or even interstate to its name. It has no oil or gas reserves. Even its internet connectivity is still in the process of coming up to speed with the rest of the state.
But Wayne County does have natural beauty in spades and claims part of Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Park. Those parks represent a huge opportunity, says Dorsey, although they also come with their own challenges. For instance, the Mighty 5 and the Road to the Mighty campaigns from the Utah Office of Tourism brought a huge influx of people—but the county wasn’t prepared for the skyrocketing numbers of visitors.
“One of the things was garbage. These people come in here and bring their garbage, and that kind of overwhelmed our services,” says Dorsey. “We’re looking at our infrastructure and our growth, and we’re looking at housing. We have a lot of AirBnBs, but that means those houses aren’t available for employee housing. It’s challenging. You want quality employees, you need quality housing. Nobody’s going to want to go live in a shack somewhere.”
Another opportunity for Wayne County lies with its rising generation of entrepreneurs. “We’ve got a lot of entrepreneurs. That’s kind of our base; we have a lot of individuals who can work online. … A lot of this is providing the people with the tools they need to do what they want to do,” Dorsey says.
STEM programs in Wayne County schools are encouraging youngsters to look around and see what they can create out of what they see or how they can fill a need around them. Adults have the spirit, too—one entrepreneur has started taking dead trees and making wood pellets out of them, using every scrap right down to the sawdust.
“We’ve got a lot of entrepreneurs. That’s kind of our base; we have a lot of individuals who can work online. … A lot of this is providing the people with the tools they need to do what they want to do.” – Adus Dorsey, Director of Economic Development, Wayne County
Contrast Wayne County’s challenges with those of Carbon County, which is still a major producer of oil and coal but has been trying to diversify its economy to reflect the changing energy landscape. That’s been the mission for Tami Ursenbach, economic development director for Carbon County, in the four years since she took the position.
“That has been my whole goal: what can we do to diversify the county,” she says, noting that transportation and warehouse facilities, manufacturing, IT and customer service are sectors at the top of her list. “If we have some of that when the energy industry is down, we will still have an economy that can stay up when [energy] is down. I’ve also been trying to find new ways of using fossil fuel.”
Ursenbach thinks the rapid growth and increasing demand for space for sleek tech companies in Salt Lake and Utah Counties could lead to good things for Carbon County, where the land is still cheap and workers are less likely to be swiped by the company across the street.
“Silicon Slopes is wanting to expand; the Wasatch Front is running out of room. They don’t have room for the new manufacturing to come in. So instead of going up, let’s go down—let’s inspire some of those businesses to move,” she says.
A prime example already seeing success in Carbon County is Intermark Steel, which settled in the county after initially planning to build a facility in the Salt Lake area. Among those it employs are several workers who were laid off from energy operations. “They’re dedicated, they’re hardworking, they’re trained, they’re ready to go,” says Ursenbach. “He’s growing faster than he can keep up, all because he has the workforce here and he doesn’t have to hold their hand.”
Ursenbach doesn’t see the 25k Jobs Initiative as a silver bullet for Carbon County’s economic challenges. Rather, she hopes it will allow her and other county officials to meet with the kind of companies they’re already targeting—the chance to make their pitch with the weight of the state behind them.
“My hope is they will then reach out, find 50 companies that are looking to maybe expand, and come and introduce them to maybe even 10 or 15 per county, and have 10 or 15 businesses come to see what we can offer in our county, and I bet I can get at least one of them to stay,” she says.
“The 25k Jobs Initiative is great, but we have to do our own part in our own counties to follow through and make sure our counties are ready for these businesses to come, and when they do come, we have to make sure we’re ready to support them and hold their hand the whole way. That shows the companies that we’re going to support them—they’re going to get the support they wouldn’t get on the Wasatch Front because there’s too many businesses.
“We want them here,” she adds, “and we will do whatever we can to get them here.”
“My hope is they will then reach out, find 50 companies that are looking to maybe expand, and come and introduce them to maybe even 10 or 15 per county, and have 10 or 15 businesses come to see what we can offer in our county, and I bet I can get at least one of them to stay.” – Tami Ursenbach, Economic Development Director, Carbon County