Due North: Weber and Davis counties are seizing economic opportunities

It’s no secret that Utah is a great place for business. In the past seven years, Forbes magazine has dubbed Utah the best state for business six times. Though that recognition is given to the entire state, those in the Weber and Davis business communities are confident their counties play a major part in earning it.

“Utah is on those lists because of its business-friendly regulations, low energy costs, a well-educated workforce and good infrastructure,” says Angie Osguthorpe, president and CEO of the Davis County Chamber of Commerce. “Especially in Davis and Weber counties, there is economic growth everywhere we turn. The chamber is doing ribbon cuttings for new businesses all the time.”

Davis County is booming

That growth is spanning all types of industries. In addition to new home construction, Davis County is seeing a boom in retail development, with Smith’s recently opening a new grocery store in Woods Cross, RC Willey adding a Layton location, and the 65,000-square-foot Utah Athletic Center opening its doors in North Salt Lake.

Both new home and retail construction is being driven by the area’s growing population. “Our population is expected to double by the year 2050,” Osguthorpe explains. “Though people are moving into Davis County, much of the growth is organic as more children are born here.”

Davis County is also adding new entertainment options to cater to that growing population. The Layton Hills Mall is now home to the 20,000-square-foot Seaquest Interactive Aquarium, which gives visitors the chance to get much closer to sea life, allowing them to touch or feed many of its 300 species of animals.

The manufacturing sector is also thriving in Davis County, driven by growth at the Freeport Center in Clearfield. The center is home to more than 7,000 employees and 70 companies, including ATK Launch Systems, Honeywell International and Lifetime Products. The center’s footprint spans nearly 700 square acres, including 60 acres reserved for new growth.

Davis County is also adding more tech jobs, led by companies like Pluralsight. “When [Pluralsight] came to town, we gave them the Small Business of the Year award,” Osguthorpe says of the online training company headquartered in Farmington. “But by the time the award banquet came around, they had gone from 13 employees to 100 and now they’re close to 800.”

Weber County is grabbing national attention

Jobs are also being created further north. Late last year global aerospace, defense and security contractor Lockheed Martin announced plans to build a 75,000-square-foot facility at Hill Air Force Base. The construction is expected to create up to 500 new jobs in the state, and both Lockheed Martin officials and leaders from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development are optimistic that this will be long-term partnership that could lead to creation of thousands of jobs over the coming decades.

Much like Davis County, the Weber area is experiencing a population explosion. In 2016, Ogden ranked 20th on Forbes magazine’s list of fastest growing cities in America—based on estimated population growth, year-over-year job growth and median annual pay for workers with college degrees. Ogden was also named one of the hottest housing markets by online real estate database Zillow and one of the best places to raise a family by online

These accolades are well deserved, Osguthorpe says. “What makes these counties a great place to run a business is the same reason it is a great place to raise children. We’ve got a great economy, great facilities, outdoor recreation and great education opportunities.”

All of those benefits add to up a place where children can grow and still have opportunities as adults, she says. “We are producing jobs so that these kids can stick around and make great family-sustaining wages right here in Northern Utah.”

Facing challenges head on

Sustaining the growth in Weber and Davis counties, however, won’t be easy. “So many companies want to come here, but with our low unemployment rate—which is around 3.5 percent—the biggest challenge is getting the workforce for them, whether it’s engineers, skilled labor or whatever they need,” says Osguthorpe.

To meet the demand for workers, employers are stepping up to the plate. “Individual businesses are getting involved in education and filling the pipeline and getting kids, especially girls, interested in STEM-related fields,” she says. Some local companies are even bringing their equipment directly to technical colleges so potential employees can be trained in the classroom.

Nonprofits are also helping out. The Davis Education Foundation works with area business to raise money to offer support beyond what school districts can provide with limited budgets. The organization has funded projects ranging from new art and music supplies for elementary school classrooms to iPad labs in junior high schools.

Building a sustainable future

Educating the future workforce is not the only thing Davis and Weber counties are planning for. As the population increases, so does the pressure on natural resources.

“We are constantly asked by potential businesses who are thinking about relocating to Northern Utah if there is going to be a reliable water supply,” says Tage Flint, general manager and CEO of Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “We assure them that our answer is yes.”

But living up to that assurance is no easy task. The conservancy district is responsible for providing water supply to Davis, Weber, Summit, Morgan and Box Elder counties and has the complicated task of keeping up with the growing demand.

To do so, the organization is taking a three-pronged approach, starting with water conservation. Through public education campaigns, demonstration gardens, sprinkler clock rebates and countless presentations, the conservancy district has helped residents reduce water use by nearly 20 percent over the past 15 years.

The second effort is converting agricultural water to urban water as farms turn into subdivisions. Luckily, it takes roughly the same amount of water for either usage and with added conservation and irrigation tactics, Flint says there is actually water savings to be had through the conversion.

The third initiative is optimizing existing river water. The conservancy district is currently creating additional water supply through a process called artificial recharge, where spring water is helped into aquifers and pulled out through wells later. “In essence, it’s a storage project underground,” Flint explains. “It’s a usage we have not had in the past that allows us to store runoff water that we wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise.”

Despite its progress, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District still has plenty of work to do. “We’re dealing with aging infrastructure. We operate seven major dams and hundreds of miles of canal, tunnels, pipelines, water treatment plants and pump stations—much of which was built by the federal government 60 years ago and will need major repair and replacement over the next few decades,” Flint says.

To start building the repair and replacement fund, water rates in Weber and Davis counties are expected to rise 8–9 percent in 2018. Though no one likes to see rates increase, it is necessary for the continued growth of the area.

“What we’ve found over and over again in our studies is that very few things have as big an impact on the economy as water supply. If it’s there, there is opportunity for economic growth. If it’s not there, it almost immediately stymies it,” Flint says. “We see it as our responsibility to add viability to economy and to stay ahead of the need.”