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Utah Business

Tourist towns like Moab are being heavily impacted by the coronavirus, can these gateways to the outdoors survive? And what will they look like if they do?

Can tourist towns like Moab survive the coronavirus?

“I immediately started sobbing,” says Ariel Atkins, expressing how she was overcome with emotion when she got the news that the coronavirus pandemic was forcing her family business to close. 

She and husband Brad Woodford, along with Atkins’ parents, have owned and operated the Up the Creek Campground in Moab for the past five years. Campers come here from across the continent and around the world before they set out on foot, mountain bike, river raft, or Jeep to experience the breathtaking scenery of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. 

For the family, hosting guests at their campground has been more a lifestyle than a business venture. They followed their passion to this place. Atkins grew up here since the age of three, and came back after college. Woodward, an Alabama native and avid cyclist, found his dream mountain biking mecca when he first rolled into Moab. They married, had a child, and decided they would never leave.

The dreaded day

Then, at approximately 10:00 AM on Friday, March 17, 2020, they found out they may not be able to stay in the place that they love the most. A post on the Grand County Health Department’s Facebook page displayed the official announcement ― all lodging owners and operators were advised to close. 

And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time, “It was our opening weekend,” says Woodward.

The campground was booked through the prime Spring season. As Woodward began the painstaking work of cancelling reservations and offering refunds, he watched his family’s livelihood evaporate.

“We operate from March until October,” Woodward says. “If we’re closed for just three months, best case scenario, we’ll lose half our annual revenue, $60,000 to $70,000.”

Once she wiped away the tears, Atkins saw the inevitability of it all, “I had to lay off our two employees,” she says. “They’re my parents.”

65 percent unemployment

Within about a week of the closures, the damage was done to Moab. The world famous tourist town and one of Utah’s most popular places had become a veritable ghost town. State data officially categorizes 45 percent of Moab’s 6,000 residents as tourism industry workers. Local officials see it differently, and their view is far more disturbing.

“I say that 60 percent to 65 percent of our employment is directly or indirectly related to tourism,” says Zacharia Levine, Grand County’s director of community and economic development.

Levine, a U.C. Berkeley and University of Utah educated industrial engineer and urban planner, has been warning government officials and citizens of a crisis like this for five years, since he first took his post at Grand County.

“Moab, like many other gateway and resort communities in the western US and throughout the world, has been vulnerable to regional, national, and global economic disruptions because of its overdependence on tourism,” Levine says.

Does Moab matter? 

They are our fellow citizens and neighbors,” says Val Hale, director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Hale sits back in his chair, smiling while talking about his family’s many trips to Moab. “We’ve spent many wonderful days hiking, exploring, and riding mountain bikes on the trails, and driving Jeeps on the backroads,” he says. “And I’ve spent wonderful evenings dining at their restaurants and staying in their hotels.”

Hale is also quick to add that everyone who lives in Utah has 1.35 billion reasons to care about Moab.

“Moab itself is not a big community but tourism there is phenomenal,” he says. “Tourism accounts for $1.35B in tax revenue for our state. We benefit from Moab economically,” he says. “It’s in our best interest to support Moab’s success.”

Levine almost waxes poetic, when he responds to the same question.“Moab and cities like Moab factor prominently in our sense of place,” he says. “We all derive our quality of life from places like this.”

He also has a practical explanation.

“Look at our license plates,” he says. “Utah markets Moab. Everyone in this state should care about what’s happening here.” 

Reimagining and reinventing

Where others see ruin, Levine sees reimagination and reinvention. This professional visionary has been preaching a plan that reimagines and reinvents the economy for Moab, Grand County, and the entire region.

“We’re geographically isolated,” Levine says, “but that doesn’t mean we have to be economically, culturally, or intellectually disconnected.”

When pressed for answers on where opportunities may be hiding in plain sight, Levine immediately points to Utah State University’s new Moab campus.“That is the kind of magnet that can attract catalytic growth,” Levine says.

He doesn’t stop there. Levine also sees opportunity in the new hospital. Moab Regional, a not-for-profit seventeen-bed critical care facility with its team of physicians and nurses from across the country, was recently named a Top 100 health care facility in the US.

“As the hospital grows, so will the medical community,” Levine says, “and so will our economy.”

Levine sees white collar job growth in professional services – financial advisory, legal services and land development – as more medical professionals move to Moab. He also sees Moab as a center for science.

“The Synergy Company is a world-class producer of nutraceuticals,” Levine says. “There’s no reason why that industry shouldn’t grow here.”

He envisions research labs where environmental engineers and desert ecologists work for the US Geological Survey, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management to study soil conservation, energy development, and applications for the rare mineral, lithium. Levine says the area’s rich lithium deposits can and should attract battery manufacturing to the region.

Levine even sees opportunity where the rubber meets the road, or in this case, the dirt.

“Moab is the mountain biking capitol of the world,” he says, “but there is no manufacturing plant here that produces bike frames and parts.”

Levine says today’s crisis should be the wake-up call Moab and Grand County needed to finally focus on the new imperative. “We must reimagine what sustainability, resilience, and prosperity looks like in a gateway and resort community,” Levine says.

Supporting and surviving

In the meantime, Moab may already be setting the standard among American cities for community collaboration during a time of crisis.

“The entire county is shut down,” Woodward says. “We’re all in this together.”

Friends and neighbors, who normally support each other by patronizing local businesses, are now baking casseroles, sharing food, sharing work opportunities, and sharing information.

“We’re just trying to look out for each other,” says Atkins, “to make sure nobody goes hungry.”

Jon is a veteran journalist whose career has taken him to Salt Lake City, Green Bay, Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and back to Utah. He has covered business and industry, government and politics, crime and the courts, and dabbled in science and technology, but this reporter’s professional passion has always been telling the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. He penned a memoir entitled The Prodigal Father – A True Story of Tragedy, Survival, and Reconciliation in an American Family (Hay House, 2000) which enjoyed Amazon.com Bestseller status for eight weeks and was optioned for a feature film by Disney. When he’s not chasing a story, Jon can be found on a mountain trail, a beach, or losing a golf match to one of his sons.

Comments (13)

  • Avatar

    Carlos V.

    Very important topic that needs to be talked about more! The impact that this pandemic has had on rural U.S. is just as heartbreaking as the impact it has had on the big cities.

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    Brad Bertoch

    Great article Jon. Hopefully State and local government will rise to the challenge. Moab can be much more than a tourist town. If there is one thing we’ve learned is now is the time for a Renaissance in our rural communities.

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    Daryl DuPre

    After years of building an amazing tourist industry. I’ll never forget the first busy Summer. When the Japanese and European people wanted to go at the hottest day’s. No one knew that would be the attraction. 120 we did that in Moab.

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    Shannon Michael

    Great article — maybe we forget how dependent we are as a state on tourism, as well — Moab serves as the flash point but with all of the parks, our winter sports, etc., we’ve always been vulnerable to major economic shake-ups. Here’s hoping things can rebound quickly enough for Moab to rebuild.

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    Jonelle M.

    Tragic situation. It is interesting to see how this pandemic is affecting each city, business sector, individual, and each state differently. No doubt the impacts are real and painful. Hopefully we can arrive on the other side of this with some better answers and solutions.

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    Laura Uhle

    I do believe that this abrupt halt could potentially save Moab from becoming the Myrtle Beach of the West. These changes often allows for more community development; not to mention facilities and infrastructure needed to support a massive tourism based economy plus whatever the future holds. It could be a blessing in disguise albeit difficult now for those caught in the crossfire. Moab, in my experience, has amazing resilience and the community will redefine itself and be greater than ever.

    • Avatar

      Laura Uhle

      Allow

  • Avatar

    Lisa Maria

    My son was so proud of finally finishing his tiny home and really looked forward to an affordable, off-grid lifestyle this year. The shock came, in mid March, when absolutely every park closed to him. It was like a bad game of musical chairs. People were fist fighting over quadruple, RV space prices. When there was no place to stay, he looked to street parking where parents lived, but was immediately threatened, by police, to be impounded if the vehicle was even seen on the public street. Forced to drive out to the desert, 100 miles away where the storage facility extorted $500 for the month, so his home could be stored in a mildly secure, out door parking space, exposed to the elements and theft. With all the hotels forced to shut down, he has no choice but to rent a sub-par room rental at a sickly elevated price. With no hope of relief in sight, this shut down has literally ruined this young mans finances, freedom to live in healthy, off-grid areas and has stripped him of his affordable living rights. How can this happen, when there have only been three reported COVID deaths, his age, in the entire USA?! #bettybusbummer #expensiveassfault!

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    Yvonne

    Funny today a Facebook memory of my first trip to Moab popped up, I will never forget the majesty and wonder of each vista as we drove through the valley into Moab. My heart breaks for service industry and the terrible toll , they are carrying . Without their hospitality we would not be able to experience this wondrous place.

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    Brent

    Great and thought provoking article. We are always advised to diversify our individual investment portfolios. I see this, as you quoted, a wakeup call for communities to diversify even if they’ve been in a successful primarily monolithic economic environment. I’m looking forward to seeing this as a great growth opportunity for the Moab area. May it come together quickly for them and my prayers go out to those struggling to make it through!

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    Scott L.

    I hope Zach Levine apologizes to Pierre at https://www.blazebicycles.com/ for his comment that no one in Moab makes bike frames. He may not have a “plant” but Pierre makes nice frames, right in Moab.

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    Jon Kovash

    I take issue with the notion that Moab’s new USU campus will have any significant and/or positive economic impact. Many in Moab regard it as a Trojan horse for more development, that will serve primarily as a mediocre rich kid college that helps drive down wages and drive up rents.

  • Avatar

    Lance Parker

    As I try to arrange transportation for an elderly resident with blood poisoning needing emergency transportation to Salt Lake City, the lack of transportation connecting Moab with “ANYWHERE” would seem to be a major priority for those dreaming of growth and profit…no train, no bus, and sparse, expensive air service connected to destinations no one wants to travel to have been obstacles since I first resided in Moab 50 years ago.
    Just building more nightly rentals, RV Parks, jeep trips, and Thai restaurants “ain’t” gonna cut it.

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