June 1, 2008

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Opportunity Knocks

On a warm summer evening, a well-groomed, neatly dressed young man knocks on ...Read More

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Wasatch and Summit Counties

Destination Expectation

Janine Simons Creager

June 1, 2008

Myles Rademan remembers the days when development was driven by the idea of “underpromise and overdeliver.” Those days are long gone. With the influx of new residents from across the state, nation, and even the world, resident and visitor expectations have increased beyond demands. “The product we have is very good and upscale,” says Rademan, director of public affairs for Park City. “The bar is set high.” Those expectations are not limited, however, to the confines of Park City. Throughout the region of Summit and Wasatch counties, business is booming and bringing both opportunities and challenges. Ski and Stay Tourism and recreational opportunities are a big part of the region’s economy, with Summit County relying heavily on revenue from businesses catering to people visiting the sights and the snow. Wasatch County does the same, albeit targeting the summer season. So while local officials in both counties are in a wait and see mode when it comes to the economy in general, no one is sitting on their hands waiting for someone else to make the first move. The general outlook is positive, especially when it comes to tourism. Rademan knows that dollars spent on recreation are discretionary in nature, but also believes that most people would rather “sell their firstborn” than give up their vacations. “But the idea that we’re immune to the state of the general economy is nonsense,” he says. People may still hold on to their vacations but they may not stay for as long, or spend as much, he adds. “We have a unique area here,” says Paul Kennard, Wasatch economic development director. “I believe [Summit and Wasatch counties] are complementary. Their high season is winter, our high season is summer. We’re trying to increase our winter business, Park City is trying to develop their summer. On a regional basis, our two counties are poised [to do great things]. One thing I think we need to do is work more on a regional basis.” The fact that tourism drives development cannot be overstated. Wasatch County planner Al Mickelsen understands that while many of those tourism dollars are being funneled into neighboring Summit County, economic success can translate into a positive impact for Wasatch County as tourists return to the overall region to buy that second or third vacation home, often in areas where housing prices are generally lower such as Wasatch County. “People that are buying these products are from out of the county and from all over the country,” Mickelsen says. “We hope that the interest will be here. We think the product is still here.” Building for the Future Beyond tourism are many other industries which help keep the counties’ economic engines turning. A more unique, and perhaps lesser known aspect of Wasatch County’s economic success is its ability to foster entrepreneurs, says Kennard. The trick, he says, is learning how to keep these companies in the county once they have grown up. Bear Creek Country Kitchens, for instance, started in Heber in 1991, and is now a part of Specialty Brands of America headquartered in New York. Kennard cites two current local companies, Tiger Light, a manufacturer of flash lights with built-in pepper spray, and Wasatch Wind, a wind farm developer and technology provider, that have promising futures and will hopefully remain in Wasatch County. Along with meeting the challenge of keeping companies in the region, another goal is to provide more job opportunities for Wasatch County residents who would prefer to work where they live rather than commute elsewhere. The county recently conducted a survey of its commuting workforce, which accounts for about 30 percent of heads of households, to discover what their skills are, how much money they earn and if they would want to stay in Heber Valley to work if they could. The response was overwhelming. “About 70 percent of those surveyed said they would love to work in the valley if it would meet their needs,” says Kennard. “That’s nearly 2,000 workers.” With those numbers, the county hopes to entice companies to come to and stay in Wasatch County, showing that the labor for higher paying positions is ready and willing to come on board. “We don’t need lower paying jobs. We need higher paying jobs, more technical jobs,” he says. “We want to maintain that [tourism] focus . . . but also want to grow other areas.” Each county seeks its own development focus. Park City, for example, is actively courting new businesses that will maintain and enhance its resort image that has been developed over the years. A more manufacturing-oriented, yet clean industry may work well for Wasatch County, for instance, but may not feel as at home in Park City. Each area, by highlighting its individual, yet complementary, strengths, is expanding its economic base to build for the future. When professional golfer Tiger Woods came to Park City’s HealthSouth Surgical Center earlier this year for outpatient surgery on his knee, the event made world-wide sports news, but also highlighted a fairly new industry being developed in the Summit County region: “medical tourism” which caters to the health and sports needs of the part-time or seasonal visitor. “We want to be known as sort of a sports capital – that’s our industry: sports, health and recreation,” says Park City’s Rademan. Along these lines, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Center for Excellence, a $22.5 million facility, is currently under construction in Park City. The national training and education center is due for completion in 2009. Another challenging issue the counties face is that of “retail leakage” which, according to Wasatch County’s Kennard, equals about $60 million to $80 million going out of the county, signaling a significant need to provide more local retail choices to county residents. That need is being addressed in part, by a new Boyer Company project, Valley Station, which will be located at the intersection of highways 40 and 89 in Heber. A mixed-use development, Valley Station will be anchored by a Wal-Mart store with negotiations underway to include a junior department store, women’s ready-to-wear shops, sporting goods stores and hardware businesses. Wal-Mart and 80,000 square feet of additional retail space are slated to open in spring 2009. At Kimball Junction, two new mixed-use developments, Red Stone and New Park, are under construction, adding to the retail choices that Summit County residents will have in the future. As desirable as these new developments are, they are intrinsically linked to accompanying challenges including workforce issues, immigration and the attending housing, transportation and traffic concerns. These various issues related to the economy of the region cannot be isolated from one another. Hot Button Issues As community development director for Summit County, Nora Shepherd is well aware of the many challenges being faced in the region. She mentions providing affordable housing for essential workers such as fire fighters, police and teachers as a major concern. Mounting traffic congestion is another. “We have significant traffic issues on major corridors into Park City,” she says. “Kimball Junction is very congested at certain times of the day, and certain times of the year. Now we have a lot of commercial businesses at Kimball Junction. Peak time can be very, very congested.” Even Highway 248, considered a backdoor into the city, is not the easily traveled route it used to be. It is also home to three public schools, whose start and end times frequently collide with commuter work schedules. The housing concerns cited by Shepherd also encompass service laborers throughout the region, many of which work for minimum wage and cannot afford to live in some of Park City’s pricey communities. It is a problem not uncommon to resort and tourist-related regions. This then leads to one of the biggest hot button issues of the day: immigration. It’s a topic that affects nearly every aspect of the economy, but one for which there are few answers and many questions. “The big challenges we face are labor and housing. They’re combined, woven together,” says Park City’s Rademan who ties these concerns into immigration, both those who are working legally and illegally. “The economic reality is that for places like Park City, it’s a killer. It’s huge.” Each year, 66,000 H2B visas are provided nationally to workers from other countries who want to come into the United States legally according to the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Website. This figure includes not only those workers who want to come to Utah to work, but also those who choose to work at places like resorts in Colorado or amusement parks in Florida. These challenges build on one another, local officials say. With low unemployment rates, finding workers can be difficult. But when they are found, where can they live? If they end up outside of the county, then transportation and traffic become concerns which put heavier loads on local infrastructure, thus increasing the demand for more businesses to help with the tax base which then comes back around to the need for a dependable workforce. It’s a dizzying and sometimes vicious cycle which could stall out some communities unprepared to meet these challenges. But fortunately, local and county officials in Wasatch and Summit counties are working hard to remain alert and aware of what can and needs to be done. “I’m always optimistic,” says Summit County Commissioner Bob Richer of the state of the local economy. “Our challenges we’ve faced, some of them are self-inflicted. We are somewhat a victim of our own success. But the underlying economic basics are still very strong. The challenge is how to balance economic development with quality of life. We don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” Northern Utah: Wasatch and Summit Counties Participants: (1) Curtis Taylor, Heber Valley National Bank; (2) Dan Matthews, Jordanelle Special Service District; (3) Allen Fawcett, Heber City; (4) Britt Mathwich, The Homestead Resort; (5) Bob Richer, Summit County Commissioner; (6) Bob Wheaton, Deer Valley Resort; (7) Tom Bakaly, Park City; (8) Bob Mathis, Midway City; (9) Jonathan Weidenhamer, City of Park City; (10) Monty Coates, Southwestern Expressions; (11) Shad Sorensen, Utah Valley University; (12) Bill Malone, Park City Chamber/Bureau; (13) Donnie Novelle, Park City Transportation; (14) Jim Hier, Park City Council; (15) Paul Kennard, Wasatch Economic Development; (16) Eric Straddeck, Heber City Council; (17) Dave Stevenson, The Canyons Resort; (18) Alan Mickelsen, Wasatch County Planning; (19) Robert Fuller, Zermatt Resort & Spa; (20) Jeff Ward, 50 Main Street/The Spur Bar & Grill; (21) Myles Rademan, Park City Municipal Corporation; (22) Martin Lewis, Utah Business. Sam Madsen, The Yarrow. As a robust ski season winds down, Summit and Wasatch counties are enjoying another year of record visits and noteworthy growth. In this roundtable, experts discussed how to keep the visitors coming year round as well as happenings in immigration requirements, economic development and consumerism.
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