Economic Makeover: Rural counties across Utah working to diversify economies

In his 2017 State of the State address, Gov. Gary R. Herbert challenged Utah businesses to create 25,000 jobs in four years across the 25 counties that make up rural Utah. From the top of the state to the bottom, economic development teams have been working alongside the governor’s office and its 25k Jobs Initiative to either create or rework their individual counties’ economic development plans.

By reinventing themselves or building on their already existing strengths, counties across Utah are finding ways to diversify their economies by increasing opportunities for residents, current and future.

Box Elder County

The No. 1 issue Box Elder County currently faces is that it doesn’t have enough retail and restaurant mix and other community amenities, says Mitch Zundel, economic development director for Box Elder County.

“As we looked at reinventing ourselves, we asked, ‘How do we make our community a better place to live and work?’” Zundel says. “We knew if we did that, residents would enjoy living here more and it would make recruitment easier, whether we wanted current businesses to expand or businesses outside the area to choose us for expansion.”

The first thing Box Elder County did to remedy this issue was survey the public to find out which restaurants and retail they wanted. Out of 1,500 respondents, 144 different restaurants were suggested. The top two requested restaurants were Chick-Fil-A and Olive Garden.

“Gathering info was our first strategy, and now we can begin coordinating with commercial real estate,” Zundel says. “Keeping their employees close is an issue for a lot of businesses. Having more amenities would help with that. Our plan came from a lot of companies telling us what issues they are having as well as surveying small to large businesses.

“Manufacturing is by far our strongest employment industry. About 36 percent of our jobs are in manufacturing and that’s higher if you count distribution.”

Another goal to help diversify its economy includes making Box Elder County the next place to invest by increasing investor confidence in the area. Zundel says the strategy there is like their first goal, which includes surveying investors to ask what it would take for them to invest in the community. There are also plans to create a conservative loan program for small businesses as well as create a series of messages and opportunities directed to the citizens to encourage more community pride and awareness.

Zundel says the county also wants to work on increasing its number of high-paying jobs by looking specifically at the businesses that would fit Box Elder County through gathering information and bringing in business owners to see what the county has to offer. Zundel adds that they’re looking specifically at the IT industry, because the ultimate goal would be for Box Elder County to house its own chapter of Silicon Slopes.

“That might be a small population, but we want to figure out a way to do an incubator space with IT in mind,” he says. “We have a lot of fiber, but we don’t have a lot of opportunity job wise.”

Other goals related to economic development in the county include improving transportation, housing and water.

Cache County

Cache County has a bit of a unique situation. Although it’s mostly a rural county, it also has a large metro area in Logan and houses Utah State University, which has more than 28,000 students currently enrolled.

Jamie Andrus, president and CEO of the Cache Chamber of Commerce and economic development director for Cache County, says Cache County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state of Utah as well as an average monthly wage that’s almost $1,000 less than Utah’s average wage. On top of that, the county also boasts more people with bachelor’s degrees than average in the state of Utah.

“Because of this, we have a little bit of a dilemma,” she says. “We have low unemployment, but we also have people educated and ready to work, but not the right type of jobs. That’s why we’re wanting to attract great businesses to come to Cache Valley, especially those that can use a highly educated workforce. That’s basically our focus.”

Andrus says a couple of new high-tech companies that have recently moved into Cache Valley will be a boon for the county. One company, located near the Logan-Cache Airport, called Electric Power Systems, makes battery systems for electric motors.

“They’re going to pair up with the flight instruction school at USU and also maybe do some other testing with USU’s Space Dynamics Lab,” Andrus says. “We’d really like to capitalize on the building up of our airport and hopefully [Electric Power Systems] will be able to build electric airplanes, which would mean great passenger service in the future. We’re about 90 miles from the airport in Salt Lake. Electric airplanes’ typical battery life is 90 miles, and it just so happens we’re just the right distance for developing this awesome electric air service. We have the right amount of air space that’s unregulated so they can test and build here. We have just the right kind of climate, because we’re high in elevation and it’s dry.”

Autonomous Solutions is another company that recently moved into the county.

“They’ve recently gotten a grant to add 125 new employees,” Andrus says. “Right now they are building autonomous kits that go on certain vehicles like a tractor or truck,” she says. “They’re really individualized right now, but I envision that we’ll become a leader in that area. We’ve got a couple of jewels here in our valley and we’re excited to see them grow.”

Another area Cache County is looking at for economic diversification is the outdoor recreation sector.

“We have an outdoor recreation product design program at USU that is fairly new,” Andrus says. “It makes sense for us to capitalize on that opportunity. We want to give Cache Valley more of a presence with outdoor recreation and product design. We do have a few other startups and companies here that are doing things in that area and we’re excited about that as well.”

Carbon County

Carbon County is well known across Utah for being a coal extraction Mecca. And while that industry is still the backbone of the county, changes are being made to continue to diversify the area’s economy so that it’s not completely reliant on extraction alone.

Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter says while the county’s coal market is stable, it has been slowly declining over the last eight years, which has led the county to look in other directions.

“We lost hundreds of jobs with the closure of some mines and the closure of the Carbon Power Plant,” he says. “Because of that, we’ve looked at alternative uses for coal. It’s still a vital element in our portfolio, but there are alternate uses for it.”

The county has been involved with the University of Utah in a carbon fiber project. The university received a federal grant to study the ability to take coal and use its byproduct to spin carbon fiber that can be used in the auto industry, airline industry and outdoor recreation industry.

“The U has already spun some of this carbon fiber and it looks really promising,” Potter says. “These products rely on carbon fiber for strength and lightweight durability.”

Carbon County has also been involved in a project with USU, which is working to take bituminous coal—which Carbon County has plenty of—and produce coke, a fuel with few impurities.

“Traditionally coke has been made out of metallurgical coal, but ours is not metallurgical,” Potter says. “It takes two tons of coal to make one ton of coke, so if we can use our own natural-based product to produce coke that meets the standards for steel production, chemical production, cement production, etcetera, that coke could be a very important product. They’ve done bench testing and a small manufacturing process on it, and that one is gaining steam.”

Another area the county is looking at for economic growth is a five-year project creating a coal-to-liquids process.

“We take a coal product and don’t burn it, but use it chemically to produce diesels, gasolines and other fuels,” Potter says. “If we can do it competitively so that it’s no more expensive than oil, then we’ll have an alternative product.”

The last area the county is looking at when it comes to coal is exporting its product to the world.

“We’re continuing to look to those opportunities for export,” Potter says. “Utah is positioning itself to be an excellent exporter.”

Besides utilizing the county’s most bounteous resource, Potter says they’ve also worked closely with USU Eastern to create incentives that will help the educational programs and population at the university grow.

Tourism is another area the county is touting. “There are beautiful natural things to see in our area, we have great clean air and no crowds,” Potter says. “We have recognized the need to diversify. We’re struggling for a lot of reasons with the decline in the coal market, but we’ve seen these cycles before and there’s a bright future ahead for Carbon County.”

Grand County

Moab is the crown jewel of Grand County because of its vast opportunities for area tourism, and while that industry is still thriving in that region, other areas have become a part of the county’s focus as well. Zacharia Levine, community and economic development director for Grand County, says his office’s main focus is to build on his county’s robust tourism economy.

“While tourism has been growing steadily, it’s not bullet proof either,” he says. “That’s why in our [current draft of our county action plan], our focus is on some of the foundational pieces of economic development, because we recognize that great economies are built on great communities.”

Those pieces include infrastructure and public services that are important to residents, such as housing stock and choice, transportation infrastructure, and water and sewer.

“We’re making improvements in all those areas,” Levine says. “Those are underlying foundational pieces. We also recognize opportunities to collaborate with regional partners and other jurisdictions, whether that’s in tourism product development or education, healthcare and transportation.”

Levine mentioned the Four Corners region as well as Southeast Utah as areas that Grand County hopes to collaborate with in the future.

“As far as developing non-tourism economic clusters, we went through a community-driven process to identify industry sectors compatible with Moab’s characteristics as well as residents’ desires of which industries would be good fit,” Levine says. “Through that process, we identified six target clusters we wanted to pursue.”

Those clusters include scientific research and development, e-commerce, transportation services, energy research and development services, specialized design and professional services, and specialty food manufacturing.

“There are also other sectors we’d like to support and facilitate,” Levine adds. “One of those is to develop four-year programs at the USU Moab campus. We currently have an extension, and we’re actively working on the establishment of a four-year destination campus by building on programs that currently exist and creating new programs that fit with the community’s vision and our unique place on the Colorado Plateau.”

Levine says while Moab is an excellent place to play, it’s also an excellent place to live and work.

“We appreciate our robust tourism economy, but we don’t want our success in tourism to become a hindrance,” he says. “That’s why we need to build into our economy some resilience in other forms of employment and income generating activity.”