Rural Utah is doing just fine
Utah’s economy is booming, drawing even more businesses to the promised land. But what happens to the residents of lesser-populated towns when developers want to expand near recreation hubs like our world-class ski resorts and vibrant national parks?
Well, we asked them.
“Eureka city is constantly approached by developers who are going to ‘save’ our city from annihilation.”
A letter from Chris Dever, Mayor of Eureka, Utah
The metaphor “allowing the invisible hand to work” refers to the economic spillovers that the economist Adam Smith described, which occur when businesses or individuals act in their own self-interest. Typically, society benefits economically from their “selfish” success, but dangerously small towns could also suffer negative reactions if not carefully kept in check.
In the town of Eureka, I am very concerned with this possible imbalance of the “invisible hand” where forcing a town to grow could result in possible unintended economic backlashes. The thought of more sales tax, property tax, children in school, and the greater economic benefits is appetizing, but these offerings might—and will—come with a cost.
Because of the sparse rural population in Juab County, the Tintic School District qualifies for special state funding which is called the Necessarily Existent Small Schools program (NESS). This provides extra equity for smaller, rural, or geographically expanse districts. Without these generous infusions, there is no question our district would struggle to provide programs and services to the communities (Eureka and the West Desert) it has stewardship over.
These funds appropriated to the district are contingent on the socioeconomic status of the community. With that stated, the district has postured itself carefully in regards to school capital needs and staffing. If Eureka City allowed untethered expansive growth to occur quickly, the district more than likely would suffer a loss of its supplemental funds too rapidly to adjust or allow the homeostasis balance to take effect.
Eureka city is constantly approached by businesses and developers who are going to “save” our city from annihilation. These unicorns think their superior intellect, acuity, and prowess will scoop our small town up out of the “food stamp” doldrums and provide a magical way for all of us to drive BMWs and eat lobster rolls! They really believe (and want to convince us) that we need them to improve our lives and economic well beings.
To these “saviors”: you all walk the same walk and talk the same talk. We are well aware of the people that absolutely want to take advantage of a town, its infrastructure, and its good people to line their own pockets. You know that the town doesn’t have huge impact fees. You know that the city has an updated sewer and water system. You know that buying a city official for the price of a cheeseburger just might get you a building permit.
The majority of Eureka’s residents are in a good place economically. We may not have a Porsche Boxter or jacked-up Duramax truck in the garage—it’s more like a 1995 F150 and Polaris FZR side-by-side—but they are paid for. These “city saviors” want us to help our community to become like Park City, leaking cash and spillover “benefits.” It’s an illusion.
Eureka, like many other small cities, has no dedicated law enforcement. We rely on the Juab County Sheriff’s Office to provide for our public safety needs. It’s estimated that the city would have to invest at least half a million dollars to create even a part-time enforcement office. If the city experienced even a moderate growth of 50-60 more homes, I am quite sure we would be in the crosshairs of having to create the enforcement presence very quickly, and we don’t have that funding in place yet.
If the city allows a less aggressive posture in new home starts, it will allow the leadership more time to format the city’s ability to create sustainable and quality services for the existing residents and also the new folks who intend to relocate to our community.
Over the last 80+ years, Eureka has transformed from a very large, high population, bustling mining district to a more detuned, rural, commuting suburb of the Dugway Proving Grounds, Salt Lake County, and Utah County. Because of this downturn and years of population loss to “ghost town” status, Eureka is on the verge of a building and population—not “explosion”—but a growth spurt.
Our small town is looking in the headlights at the front end of a growth curve. It’s a steep one and kind of daunting. Like many other small towns like ours, through careful planning and calculated decisions, the invisible hand will work and the homeostasis balance will take effect to create a prosperous and sound community. Not many lobster rolls on the menu, but cheeseburgers and fries.
“When the percentage of vacation homes equals or exceeds the percentage of primary homes, it changes the character of the town.”
A letter from Sandy Hunter, Town Council Member of Huntsville, Utah
Huntsville, with a population of only 645, is in the Ogden Valley just 15 miles east of Ogden and less than an hour from Salt Lake City International Airport. Huntsville is surrounded by three ski resorts: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley. Snowbasin is a world-class ski resort that hosted ski events, including the downhill, in the 2002 Winter Olympics and has the most elegant lodges, efficient gondolas and lifts, and varied terrain that can be found anywhere. Powder Mountain has close to 8,000 acres of skiable terrain and gets as much snowfall (500+ inches) in most years as powder legends Alta and Snowbird, and Nordic Valley is a small but terrific family resort.
The residents of Huntsville consider their town to be a true paradise—and so do developers. Just recently, Huntsville was listed as one of the highest-priced real estate markets in Utah. There are many developers who would love to advertise Huntsville as the place to build your luxury vacation home.
Huntsville residents enjoy their lifestyle, which is one of low population density and outdoor-influenced, mountain country living conducive to raising families and a positive community spirit. Residents realize that growth is taking place all through Ogden Valley, including in their town. They welcome the diversity that new residents offer the town. At the same time, they are desirous of maintaining their high-quality lifestyle by managing and shaping future growth through ordinances via restrictions on fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, only allowing one family on one lot, and no overnight rentals like VRBOs and Airbnbs.
Currently, about 15 percent of the homes in town are vacation homes. When the percentage of vacation homes equals or exceeds the percentage of primary homes, it changes the character of the town. The town loses its community, and community is what Huntsville wants to keep.
Huntsville is currently developing more commercial areas in its town square, which includes the small Compass Rose Lodge with its own observatory, the Shooting Star Saloon (the oldest continuously running bar in Utah), Lovin Cup Café, i.d.k. Barbeque, a library, a gorgeous park, and a winter ice skating rink. Huntsville is looking to add more commercial establishments like a pizza restaurant or other eating establishments, a hair and nail salon, etc. A community meeting was held with the commercial developers for residents’ input on what type of commercial business they would like to see in their town square. It is important the new commercial development matches the architecture of the town center and is conducive for people to gather.
Huntsville poses a challenge for entrepreneurs and business owners due to the extreme fluctuations from the summer season to winter. Huntsville is the gateway to most of the summer recreation on Pineview Reservoir. Thousands drive through Huntsville to gain access to Pineview. But in the winter, there are very few visitors and businesses that rely on residents.
Huntsville enjoys its spacious mountain vistas and the atmosphere of a quiet village with a connected community and welcomes new residents who want this same lifestyle. Huntsville does not want to be known as the best ski town for real estate investment. This leads to more vacation homes and short-term rentals and changes the lifestyle that Huntsville residents enjoy. Marketing this “lifestyle” to those who just want a vacation home could destroy our community.
We want to attract residents who wish to make Huntsville their home, and we want to attract businesses that would fit our lifestyle and be sustainable through quiet winters.
“This growth creates opportunities for many and problems for all.”
A letter from Mickey Wright, Mayor of Torrey, Utah
Towns in southern Utah are growing, some faster than others. This growth creates opportunities for many and problems for all. Much of this growth is from businesses that support the ever-increasing number of visitors to southern Utah.
There is a litany of issues for towns and counties to manage. All businesses—such as hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.—require many workers, and those workers want affordable housing. Police, fire, paramedics, search and rescue, trash collection, and many other services are needed. However, all those issues are irrelevant if water is not provided.
Water is the biggest problem for everyone. Where will the water come from? Who will pay to acquire the water rights and build the delivery system so all the homes and businesses have the water they need? All these services cost money; lots of it. The tax base of many towns and counties is small and does not pay for all the services that are required. Managing the need for water and controlling growth are the main problems counties and towns face in rural Utah.
Growth cannot be stopped or prevented. It can only be controlled with wise land use ordinances that are developed with the input of all the citizens. Too often, people only complain when a large development project is being considered. At that point, the only consideration is, “What do your ordinances say?” That decides what can and cannot be done. Leaders must work very hard to get the input from citizens when ordinances are written, and there must be a constant review of the existing ordinances to ensure they are consistent, enforceable, and most importantly reflect the values and desires of citizens.
Everyone has their views about how or if growth should be dealt with. The views range from no restrictions to controlling many types of growth. This is a significant challenge for leaders to both understand and manage. Here is where the saying, “You can’t please everyone” is apropos. Most importantly, leaders must listen to and consider everyone’s views and opinions. An inclusive and transparent government is a key to avoiding conflict among people.
The challenges rural Utah faces are many, complex, and will take lots of hard work by local, state, and federal governments to solve. The thing that all of us must do is treat one another with respect and dignity. Most importantly, it is to listen and understand the other person’s perspectives so that common ground can be found.
Note: These letters have been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.