Nestled between the blue waters of Utah Lake and the regal Wasatch Mountains, Utah County lies in the perfect location to weather any storm. As the nation continues to struggle with economic issues including the energy, financing and housing crises, Utah County leaders adhere to the pioneer tenets of endurance, hard work and optimism. “As the country hunkers down and waits for the economic clouds to lift, Utah County remains cautiously optimistic,” says Steve Densley, president of the Provo-Orem Chamber of Commerce. “There’s no question we’re seeing an overall downturn, but we’ve got a lot of interesting things happening in the valley.”
Located just 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah County’s sister cities, Provo and Orem, consistently receive high marks in national surveys as two of the best places to live in the country. CNN’s Money and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazines attribute the county’s skilled workforce as one of the driving factors for the area’s success. BYU and Utah Valley University graduates offer employers an intelligent and creative pool of workers to choose from.
“We have so many college kids and a high entrepreneurial spirit,” Densley says. “This lends itself to bringing new, young ideas to the county. We offer a large group of highly talented and very aggressive people.”
Computer software companies like Micron Technology and Novell, Website hosting centers such as XMission and aerospace businesses like Aero Technics, Procerus Technologies and Inter-mountain Turbine Services have turned the county into a technological oasis. Aerospace engineers are hired right after graduation and students with technology back-grounds are snatched up almost immediately.
Nutraceutical companies are also blooming in the area. Tahitian Noni, Xango, Neways, NuSkin and Theranaturals offer everything from anti-oxidant juices to skin care—and all are based in Utah County. “They are huge companies,” Densley says. “In fact Neways just announced they’re going to build the biggest warehouse in the state right here.”
Slow But Steady
With so much growth, commercial real estate in Utah County hasn’t been hit quite as hard as other parts of the country. Though experiencing a slight downturn in commercial real estate, the industry remains steady. And though vacancy rates are slowly increasing, building owners are willing to offer concessions to tenants in order to keep office space full. With national chain stores like Kohl’s planting roots in the area, the first part of 2009 looks decidedly upbeat for commercial real estate.
Mixed-use projects are also gaining popularity, as residents look for ways to cut fuel costs by staying close to home. While construction on Orem’s massive Midtown Village project was halted due to the housing slump and tightening credit requirements, smaller projects are in the works, creating walkable communities.
Though stronger than much of the U.S., Utah County is experiencing a residential housing dip with delinquency rates rising and personal discretionary income shrinking.
“It’s a little frightening to see national housing trends,” Densley says. “Many people bought houses that were just too big. We need to step back, look at finances and move forward.”
Utah Valley State College’s upgrade to university status has certainly stirred excitement in the area. Utah Valley University (UVU) students now have access to more degree options, including three select master’s degree programs, while still enjoying the characteristics of a community college. With students at BYU totaling more than 30,000 and with a projected attendance of 24,000 at UVU, keeping new residents moving to the county shouldn’t be a problem. Provo College and the University of Phoenix also contribute to the area’s educational atmosphere.
“The universities make Utah County recession-proof to a large degree,” Densley says. “Kids are going to go to school and bring lots of money in. They need housing, books and food. But one interesting fact is that most [students] aren’t taking second jobs anymore. They’re choosing not to work and focusing on school. It’s created a higher demand for people to fill jobs.”
In addition, UVU joined the Western Athletic Conference in July, which will further its journey to full university status. School teams will start competing in several sports during the 2008-09 season and move into full competition for the 2009-10 school year.
While the fuel crisis has certainly affected Utah County residents, it’s also had a surprisingly positive effect on the area’s economy: more Utahns are “stay-cationing” in the area. “The locals are staying close to home,” says Joel Racker, president and CEO of the Utah Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau (UVCVB.) “We’re hoping this offsets the lack of out-of-state visitors this year. The old adage that there’s nothing to do in Utah County just doesn’t hold true anymore.”
Majestic Mount Timpanogos has enjoyed brisk business this year, especially on weekends and holidays. In fact, Timpanogos cave tours during the Independence Day holiday were sold out weeks in advance.
Utah Lake has also seen an upswing in tourism. In order to cut fuel costs, boating enthusiasts who usually travel south to Lake Powell are opting for Utah Lake to get their outdoor fix; the lake offers water-skiing, fishing, canoeing and camping and is the largest freshwater lake in Utah, offering more than 130 square miles of water recreation.
Thanksgiving Point, located in Lehi, is a peaceful retreat where art, education and beautiful gardens come together to create a much-visited tourist attraction. Cooking, gardening and art classes are available throughout the year and a farmer’s market makes buying local produce easy.
Sundance Resort, just a few miles up Provo Canyon, offers cultural and creative classes for residents and visitors; film screenings, theater workshops, lectures and art classes are popular at the resort. And this year, Sundance brought back the summer theater program with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“It’s just spectacular,” Racker says. “When you’re sitting at the base of 11,000-foot Mount Timpanogos, it’s just incredible. Utah’s got some incredible ski resorts; Sundance is an incredible resort that has skiing.”
BYU also offers a variety of attractions including the world-renowned art museum, the Monte L. Bean Life Science exhibit, the BYU Museum of People and Cultures and many dance, theater and music groups.
“Utah County has the depth of high technology and business,” Racker says, “but we’re finding that tourism is starting to hold its own. Tourism is now an economic tool.”
Five years ago, Utah County made the decision to privatize tourism for the area and hired Racker to head up the program. In an effort to promote activities in the county, the organization created the Utah Valley Adventure Passport was created. This booklet was mailed to every resident in the county, plus hotels, BYU and other high-traffic areas, encouraging people to visit the county’s top 10 tourist attractions. Some attractions include the Covey Center for the Arts and the BYU Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center.
Passports are stamped after each location is visited and once all the sites are toured, passports can be taken to the UVCVB to be redeemed for a gift. Coupons for local dining spots, hotels and other events are also found in the passport.
“In a survey by Utah County, it was determined that 70 to 80 percent of people who visit Utah County rely on residents to determine where they want to go,” Racker says.
Transportation concerns are always a top issue for any area, and Utah County struggles to alleviate its own traffic congestion. A commuter rail, utilizing UTA’s new Frontrunner trains, is currently under construction to connect with Salt Lake County. Once complete, the rail will offer travelers an inexpensive route from Provo to Ogden.
Restructured bus routes provide residents more convenient routes and the Utah Lake Commission has even considered building a causeway across the lake to ease commuter congestion. Without a good alternative highway, widening the I-15 corridor through Utah County will only add more transportation headaches to an already congested area.
But even with many challenges, Racker agrees with Densley’s hope for the county’s future. “If you’re a glass half full type of person, you have to look at our situation as being cautiously optimistic.”