Whether you’re a one-man trucking operation, a mom-and-pop convenience store, or a large manufacturer of you-name-it, companies in rural Utah — or those hoping to move to Utah — have a lot of help growing and expanding these days. And so do the towns and counties where they plan to sprout. From Internet databases to grassroots marketing plans to award competitions, rural entrepreneurs have only to reach out and seize the right niche and opportunity.
Assistance begins at the state level, pumped up by the energetic economic growth governor, Jon Huntsman, and his team in the Governer’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). “One thing we talk about routinely in the governor’s office is how to grow our own businesses — especially those in rural areas,” says Jason Perry, the executive director of GOED.
The first notable program to encourage growth in rural areas is Utah SURE Sites, which stands for Select Utah Real Estate. Incepted at the end of 2005 in conjunction with the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah), the program is just now taking shape. SURE Sites is a highly-detailed, interactive Internet mapping program that provides businesses with enhanced economic development and site selection services.
For example, representatives of a company in Ohio looking to relocate to Utah would visit the SURE Sites page (www.utahsuresites.com
), enter their search criteria (size of land, industrial park, proximity to a railroad, etc.), and find everything they need to know about some 70 sites across the state. A locator can also search for available buildings or create targeted demographic reports. It’s essentially a state-run commercial real estate brokerage, ideally the first place a site consultant looks when beginning the relocation process.
“It started as a way to have quality, accurate data in advance of a project,” says Michael Ryan Flynn, a developer of the program and the vice president of public development for EDCUtah. “We wanted to be able to respond to inquiries quickly. Timelines are getting shorter and shorter, from a week to a day that [locators] need a turn-around.”
Flynn says the SURE Sites program, which includes spaces for industrial, manufacturing, distribution centers and some office space, is actively supporting between 50-200 sites online and that there are currently a number of deals in motion.
There are some known companies that are moving to Utah, such as Procter & Gamble to Box Elder County, but whether they were guided by the SURE Sites Website is hard to determine. After selecting a site, the Procter & Gamble deal was ultimately finessed for a year by the state and Box Elder County economic development directors, says Perry. “This is the biggest deal,” he adds, noting that the company is offering the community 1,000 jobs that pay 200 percent above the median wage. In this light, where a company first finds a site doesn’t really matter, Utah is just excited to have them.
“The objective of SURE Sites is not to [ensure a company] make a decision straight from looking at the Website,” Flynn says. “The goal is to get projects to come to the state and take a look, to get people interested in Utah.”
While interest in a SURE Site piece of acreage or industrial park may come through the Website, there may be other factors. Bryan Dangerfield, economic development director for Cedar City and Iron County, says, “We’ve had more interest in the area in the past year than we’ve had in a long time,” but whether it’s thanks to SURE Sites or not, he can’t say. He is celebrating the opening of a new company at Port 15 Utah, one of the area’s SURE Sites, and “a first class industrial park.”
Dangerfield does appreciate the importance of marketing, a tool that many rural areas are just beginning to wield, some more effectively than others. Cedar City benefits from the dedication and devotion of a proud mayor, Gerald R. Sherratt, former president of Southern Utah University and who Dangerfield calls a “full-time ambassador” for the city, creating, building and promoting a number of festivals and large events, and giving the Cedar City the title of “Festival City USA.” With the Shakespearean Festival, the temperate climate, and a galaxy of national parks encircling it, Cedar City is not a hard sell.
But what about rural areas that cannot tout Zion and Romeo as local attractions? How do these economic developers attract companies, tourists and retirees? How do they keep existing businesses alive and new ones coming?
For Delynn Fielding, one answer seems to be education. As the director of Carbon County Economic Development, Fielding is excited about his county’s Business and Expansion Retention (BEAR) program, for which Carbon is collaborating with Emery County, a number of cities, and the College of Eastern Utah.
“The object — the basis of it — is a business survey, which we have been conducting for the past two years,” Fielding says. “From the surveys, we are looking at needs, potential for already existing incentives, and trends.” Through face-to-face interviews with almost 900 business owners (approximately 700 remain), the program’s surveyors discover barriers businesses encounter, developing trends, and assistance that business owners need to succeed. A federal grant was just awarded to pay for three new VISTA volunteers to conduct the surveys.
“This ongoing process is our way of doing development in our area,” Fielding says, explaining how the process has led to a new community curriculum of seminars for businesses, which in turn have lead to increased revenues and jobs throughout the county.
While conducting surveys in Helper, Utah, one complaint surfaced repeatedly from business owners — from the restaurateur, the gallery owner, or the gas station manager: How do we get traffic from Highway 6, from which the town is completely cut off?
“The surveyors didn’t know what to tell them,” says Fielding, which spawned the first marketing class training program, to help business owners learn how to market themselves. The class has continually expanded and this spring Fielding says they are “ratcheting it up a notch” and offering Marketing 201.
Because of the success of the initial seminars, the county is now offering classes in customer service; procuring government assistance; government bidding and contracting; capital access; and going into business with relatives (i.e. “How to Live and Work with Your Husband without Strangling Him in the Night”).
Back in the capital city, another newly minted program is up and running to assist rural companies. The Rural Fast Track Program (legislated as the S.B. 10 Industrial Assistance Fund) was designed to provide an efficient way for small companies in rural Utah to receive incentives for creating decent, high paying jobs. To qualify, companies must be located and conduct business operations in a disadvantaged, rural county, i.e. one that has a population of less than 30,000 people and an average household income less than $60,000. A company must have been in business within the state for at least two years and have at least two employees. The company must also prove that it is going to add jobs to the community.
“It is a competitive process that will create new jobs and huge benefits for a minor amount of money,” says Perry. In this initial competition, 15 applicants vied for the prize, which is a cash award to be granted after an administrator has verified the new incremental job has been in place for 12 months. A company may receive $1,000 to $1,500 for each new job, up to $50,000. Recipients will be revealed this spring.
“The governor originated the idea and it has become everything we hoped it would be,” says Perry. “We wanted it to be a way to take care of those things that were holding companies back, and that is what this will do.” The types of companies that applied, Perry says, were for a wide range of needs for new products and services —
from power to mining equipment to property improvement to whole new product lines.
Rural communities have much to offer in terms of quality of life, and with the help of various programs they may have more to contribute to the state by enriching the economy, diversifying its business foundation and strengthening its pool of talent and resources. From amazingly innovative companies in mining and trucking in the Uintah Basin to condominium developers at Brian Head, there’s a lot to be discovered and fostered beyond the urban borders.