Washington and Iron Counties: Reviving a Stalled Economy
By Sarah Ryther Francom
December 1, 2009
After years of record-breaking growth, Southern Utah’s once booming economy, particularly in Washington and Iron counties, has stalled. According to the Department of Workforce Services (DWS), Washington County’s current unemployment rate is 8.1 percent; Iron County’s unemployment rate is 6.8 percent.
As in much of the state, Southern Utah’s construction industry has been hit the hardest. According to DWS, Iron County’s construction employment declined by 35 percent from June 2008 to June 2009. Washington County’s construction employment declined by 39 percent during the same time period.
Local residential construction industry leaders, Tracy Ence, partner at Ence Homes, and Kelly Stephens, operations manager of Sun River, agree that the area’s residential industry has slowed as much as 65 percent. “Residential construction is not dead by any means, but it is very slow,” says Ence, adding that the financial incentives for first-time home buyers have helped move housing inventory. “The tax incentives are bringing people, even the retired people, out to look at homes and some of them are buying.”
Southern Utah’s commercial construction industry is faring no better. “Not much [commercial building] is going on,” says Doug Watts, president of Watts Construction. “I think it’s going to take quite some time, I think beyond a year, before commercial real estate catches up here.”
Though the residential and commercial construction industry has slowed, local leaders see a bright spot in the area’s growing high tech and green industries. Scott Hirschi, Director of the Washington County Economic Development Council, is especially excited about SEED Dixie, a local program that offers entrepreneurs a place to launch their business. “With the SEED program, we’ve been able to accomplish a number of things,” Hirschi says. “We now have a business incubator that’s up and running with our first client in it…The whole idea of an incubator is companies can get a start, which might take six months, 12 months, possibly even 18 months. After they ‘graduate’ they have to find commercial space and be on their own. But the incubator helps get them started.”
Tourism is another bright spot in the local economy. Area tourism leaders are especially enthused about landing the Ironman Marathon. Roxie Sherwin, director of the St. George Convention and Tourism Bureau, says the marathon is attracting people from all over the world to the area. “The majority of those [visitors] are coming to Utah for the first time…It’s good business and we expect a lot of spinoff.”
David Clark, regional president for Zions Bank, says that though the local economy has been hit hard, Washington and Iron counties will rebound. “As I look around locally, we have the tools here to start growing again. We have the colleges now with four year degrees, high quality of health care and the new airport.”