Although Wasatch and Summit counties boast some of the country’s highest mountain peaks, they weren’t the high ground needed to keep cities above the country’s rising financial troubles. Park City, Heber, Jordanelle and Kamas have each had their share of the economic downturn with construction, lodging and housing taking large hits.
Wasatch County made a proactive economic move in June 2005 by forming the Wasatch Area Economic Development Agency. The organization is a cooperative effort between Wasatch County, Heber, Midway and Jordanelle to pool resources and strengthen local communities through increased business development.
“Our mission is to encourage and facilitate business development that provides for employment growth at wages above the county average,” says Paul Kennard, Wasatch Economic Development director. “Our success is really going to come from us working together.”
The cooperative’s first goal is to help existing businesses identify ways to create jobs and hire capable employees. By recognizing businesses with growth opportunity, the organization can help them expand using the Wasatch Business Expansion and Retention program (BEAR).
Not only does the cooperative target businesses with growth potential, but “at risk” companies can benefit from BEAR intervention. Whether it’s to increase employee retention or provide information about expansion, the BEAR program is designed to put local business leaders in touch with appropriate resources—and let residents know jobs are available.
“Forty percent of the workforce in Wasatch County works outside of the county,” Kennard says. “A lot of residents don’t know businesses are here and hiring. We also have to let new companies know there are individuals out there they can hire.”
Tourism is a big draw in Wasatch County with Jordanelle, Strawberry and Deer Creek reservoirs, the Soldier Hollow tubing hill and cross-country resort, Wasatch Mountain State Park and the Homestead and Zermatt resorts.
Although not as large as the tourism industry in Summit County, Wasatch holds its own with more companies bringing their conference business to the Heber Valley. The small-town atmosphere is ideal for some, especially with the close proximity to Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake International Airport.
“Last year, Zermatt had a tremendous year when it comes to bringing in groups and business conferences,” Kennard says. “In 2008, they showed double-digit growth.”
Additionally, Wasatch County and Qwest is working to increase Internet access and bandwidth. By August 2009, 95 percent of residents should have access to broadband for fast Internet service.
Listed in the December 2008 edition of the American Community Survey report as one of the fastest growing mid-size counties in the country, Wasatch County works closely with Summit County when it comes to issues involving tourism and commercial projects. Two five-star hotels are being built in the area, expected to bring more tourism money into both counties.
The St. Regis and the Montage Hotel in Deer Valley are also expected to bring jobs and visitors to the Wasatch Mountains. But, hotels in the counties have definitely been impacted by the recession. Resorts saw lots of day skiers during the winter, but people saved money by not staying overnight in local hotels. But overall, Interim Summit County Manager Brian Bellamy sees good things in the future for Summit County.
“We were fairly wise and prudent in our budgeting,” he says. “We hopefully got a little ahead of the curve. We haven’t cut services to anybody and, while we haven’t filled every position, we haven’t laid anybody off.”
Although construction in Summit County has slowed, Park City Manager Tom Bakaly says it isn’t stagnant. Recently, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association opened the new Center of Excellence in Park City, a world-class training and education center. Not only will the facility be a training center for 2010 Winter Olympic athletes, an electronic educational network allows parents, coaches athletes and officials all over the country to connect with the center.
With dropping construction costs, Bakaly says this is a great time to build if businesses have the financing. Many county projects, both in infrastructure and commercial development, are planned for the next 12 months.
“Despite the economy being down, we’ve had a great winter,” Bakaly says. “People tend to compare to the prior year, but we’ve had record years, so that really isn’t a fair comparison. We continue to be optimistic.”
Development on or around Park City’s Main Street is ongoing with the Main Street Mall renovation and a whiskey distillery opening in an old livery stable near the tourist area. Recent zoning changes on Main Street restricts street level businesses to retail only, but Bakaly says that hasn’t impacted business occupancy along the historic street.
As a winter destination, Park City is making an effort to bring in summer visitors through improved hiking and biking trails, the summer arts festival, the Triple Crown Fast Pitch Softball tournament and the weekly farmers’ market, which is considered a “big community festival every Sunday.” Close proximity to the Salt Lake Valley allows organizers to encourage residents to visit Park City and participate in Summit or Wasatch counties’ events.
“It’s a double-edged sword living so close to a major metropolitan area,” Bakaly says. “When people come here, we want them to feel like it’s a new experience. We want them to feel they’ve left home when they come here.”
Although the counties’ unemployment rates are still lower than the national average, employment has been hit. Wasatch County’s unemployment rate went from 2.5 to 5 percent in the last 18 months. Summit County’s unemployment rate is holding steady and leaders from both counties are grateful it hasn’t been worse.
“There are places in the country that are well beyond double-digit unemployment,” Kennard says. “We’re not nearly as bad but it’s still a lot worse than it was before.”