Northern Exposure: Cache Valley’s strong economic outlook
Things are looking good for Utah’s economy. Inflation remains low, the consumer attitude index is up, and the job market keeps getting stronger. Hovering around 3 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is nearly two points lower than the national average, and Utah added nearly 45,000 new jobs in the past year, thanks to positive growth in all sectors save natural resources and mining.
While some of the state’s biggest job gains headed south along the I-15 corridor—Salt Lake City’s job market grew by 3.2 percent, Utah County was up 5 percent and Washington added 6 percent—a solid uptick happened up north as well. Cache County saw job increases of nearly 2 percent and is poised for strong economic growth in 2017.
Expansion in Cache County
“We are in growth mode for everything, from mom and pop small businesses to our larger technology and agricultural manufacturing businesses,” says Sandra Emile, president and CEO of the Cache Chamber of Commerce.
In early 2015, JBS USA announced a $75 million addition to its Hyrum meat processing and distribution operation. The first phase is now complete, resulting in the addition of 150 new jobs. “These are good jobs,” Emile says. “JBS pays their employees well, they treat them well, they have good benefits.”
In November 2016, utility management company Conservice opened the doors to its new 93,000-square-foot headquarters in River Heights. Since its founding in 2000, the Cache County-based business has grown from two employees to more than 1,300 and now offers its services globally. The new building will help the company expand its workforce with minimal disruption to its surroundings; the multi-million-dollar facility includes more than 2,200 solar panels to generate energy and uses thermal heating and cooling to increase sustainability.
Ophir-Spiricon, a company that manufactures laser measuring and calibration instruments, is creating new high-paying jobs by converting empty warehouse space in Logan into manufacturing, R&D and office space. Hyrum-based cabinet and millwork manufacturer Bywater Products is also adding new jobs in Cache County as it expands its service and product lines.
Not only are businesses expanding in Cache County, but they’re paying more. “We’re starting to see small wage increases for our Cache Valley residents,” Emile says. “I know it’s a challenge for businesses [to raise wages] but they are competing with their products on both the national and global level. For them to have the right employees to be producing these products, they need to be paying them a competitive wage. I see that starting to happen.”
Downtown Logan rising
In larger cities like Salt Lake, Ogden or Provo, reaching the city center from the freeways requires a bit of navigating. Logan’s downtown, however, is laid out more like a small town main street.
“Because of the nature of our transportation grid, when visitors come into town, they go right through our downtown,” explains Kirk Jensen, economic development director of Logan City. To make a good first impression on out-of-towners and instill pride in the locals, the city has put extra effort into the downtown area.
At the center of that work is the newly reopened Utah Theatre. The renovation of the historic theater took more than nine years and $11 million to complete. The venue will host year-round theatrical and musical productions and also screen classic silent movies that will be accompanied live by an old-fashioned Wurlitzer organ. Jensen says the new venue is the perfect complement to Logan’s Ellen Eccles Theatre and Lyric Theater, housed on the same block.
Logan is also welcoming a new hotel to its downtown. “In terms of revitalization, it’s an important piece,” Jensen says of the new Hampton Inn and Suites. “It brings some visitor traffic into downtown and will drive consumption of goods and services. Restaurants and retailers will benefit from it as well.”
Logan is also making plans to relocate its library to create space for more development in the downtown area. In the meantime, the city is focusing on a series of smaller projects like adding antique lighting to the area, improving wayfinding signage and incentivizing downtown store owners to invest in their properties.
“We feel like the presentation of downtown, both in terms of the architecture and also the energy, is important to projecting the image of our city,” Jensen says. “I think our local people take pride in that, too. They want to see a downtown that looks good and is filled with energy. “
Recipe for success
Both Emile and Jensen are convinced that Cache County would not be seeing the same growth without the collaboration of Utah State University. “The university is in tune with the type of businesses that are growing in our community and is filling the needs of our businesses with graduates,” Emile says. “Not all universities work so collaboratively with the economy of their region.”
The school not only supports economic growth, it drives it. The university recently completed an addition to its football stadium, and the Huntsman School of Business finished a $50 million expansion of its facilities. The school’s Space Dynamics Laboratory also inked a $99 million contract with the Department of Defense to develop space-based sensor platforms for the Missile Defense Agency.
USU’s research park is also attracting the interest of Utah businesses. Vivint recently opened an office in the park to support its training, sales recruitment, and research and development efforts. The company hopes the new location will help it hire more USU graduates and lead to collaborative R&D efforts with the university.
“When you talk about the strengths of our economy, you always have to look to USU,” Jensen says. “We’re proud of what the university does and what it means to the community.”
Facing future challenges
Despite strong economic growth, Northern Utah is not without its challenges. “The very thing we’re good at is also our biggest weakness: our number of hirable employees,” Emile says. “We have a 2.8 percent unemployment rate. That means we have to work extra hard to make sure that every graduate who comes out of USU has the skills and the experience to go directly into a job, instead of leaving Cache Valley.”
To keep up with the demand for workers, the business community tries to entice well-trained individuals to move back to Cache Valley. “We have a wonderful quality of life here. We have a safe community. We have lovely outdoor recreation. We have so many amenities, from the arts, to sports, to education that people should definitely consider moving here and taking positions here,” Emile says.
If the area can attract more businesses to Logan, Jensen thinks USU graduates will stick around. “The university provides a great talent flow. We just need to do a better job of getting more jobs here,” he says.
City and county leaders are working closely with EDCUtah to encourage site selectors to choose Logan. Jensen says Cache Valley offers benefits that are hard to find elsewhere. In addition to being much more affordable for employers than most metropolitan areas, “the university creates a nice employment pipeline for employers, not to mention synergies that might be achieved by dialoguing with academia in the various disciplines that a business might have,” Jensen says.
Despite these challenges, Sandra Emile is confident Northern Utah’s economic future is bright. “Logan is open and ready for business,” she says. “If you can dream it, you can grow it in Cache County.”