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When it comes to the economy in southern Utah, experts across several industries are confident that the region is poised to be stronger than ever in 2014. This statement was echoed frequently during Utah Business’ annual southern Utah regional roundtable held Thursday.
Experts from a variety of different industries, such as real estate, construction, education, healthcare, tourism and transportation, gathered together to discuss how each of their industries fared in 2013 and what they expected to see in 2014.
Scott Hirschi, director of Site Select Plus in Washington County, said St. George is at or above the economic value it was during southern Utah’s best times in the early to mid-2000s.
“It is no longer correct to say our county and economy are recovering,” he said. “The economy has recovered. It has reached new levels with population growth, job growth and retail sales. And the unemployment rate is less than one half of what it was at its peak.”
Hirschi also said construction and demand are up, which in turn has substantially decreased inventories. In addition, retail sales have increased each of the last 10 quarters, Hirschi said, which has resulted in wage increases and a demand for more workforce.
Brennan Wood, director of the Cedar City-Iron County Economic Development office, said 2014 will be a really good year for the Iron County region. Unemployment decreased more than 1 percent from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2013, which has been a good sign for the area, he said.
“Really what’s driving the economy is industrial development and our events and tourism activities,” he said. “This past year we’ve announced two major developments, with the expansion of [two manufacturing facilities], so we’re seeing a lot of industrial development. We’ve got a very low inventory market because a lot of industrial clients want existing facilities.”
Several of those in attendance agreed that the lack of infrastructure and inventory is a concern to the growing area, but were optimistic that the need for infrastructure will increase commercial real estate opportunities and lend to job growth.
In Kane County, the economy has been fairly stagnant over the last few years, said Kelly Stowell, executive director of the Kane County-Kanab City Economic Development office.
“We were slower coming into the recession and we are slower coming out of it, but overall it’s been stronger,” he said. “We have had some steady growth in the real estate market. Our biggest economic drivers are tourism and nonprofits, which is surprising, but it’s due to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. They are our largest employer, [employing] about 10 percent of our workforce. We also have a lot of entrepreneurs, with companies like Stampin’ Up and their manufacturing facility.”
Stowell also said the county’s transient room taxes have almost doubled over the last five years.
“We’re really strong and things are going well, but we expect them to be even better,” he said. “I’m also part of the county’s film commission, and we had over 20 projects in 2013 with companies such as Range Rover and Neiman Marcus.”
Just across the Utah border in Mesquite, Nev., the economy is a “mixed bag” said George Gault, chairman of Mesquite Regional Business. Mesquite had approximately one million visitors in 2013, but casinos suffered.
“In talking to casino owners, gaming is down and room sales are down,” he said. “That’s less than a happy indicator. However, we are selling about 100 homes a year, and that’s coming back up, so we’re seeing some residential growth. We have kind of a mixed bag.”
The roundtable was moderated by Hirschi. The discussion will be published in Utah Business’ March issue.