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Vernal, Utah

Uintah County: Smoothing out the highs and lows of an energy-dependent economy

When prehistoric Uinta Lake formed more than 60 million years ago, sediment at the bottom of the ancient lake created gilsonite, oil shale and tar sands. The lake slowly dried up but left behind a fortune in natural resources with an estimated 9 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.

Uintah County sits right in the center of all those natural riches and has benefited from decades of oil and gas drilling since the first successful oil well was completed in 1948. But it’s also experienced desperate times when the bottom fell out of the oil industry, plunging its economy into turmoil.

Feast or famine

Uintah County, measuring nearly 4,500 square miles, continues to be one of the top oil-producing areas in the country, even though times have not always been easy. As oil prices rise and fall, the county’s economy follows suit. This volatile boom-or-bust situation has residents, businesses and public officials trying to diversify and encourage new businesses to come to the area to balance out the highs and lows of the oil business.

Vernal Mayor Sonja Norton says roughly half of the city’s economy is centered around the oil and gas industry. During the energy crisis in the 1980s, people were leaving the area in droves. At one time, there were more than 200 vacant HUD homes on the market in the county.

On the other hand, when oil prices are up, the booming market brings in vast amounts of money for jobs and infrastructure, plus community facilities like libraries and recreation centers.

To avoid economic disaster, leaders in Uintah County are working with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and World Trade Center Utah to devise a plan that encourages businesses to locate to Vernal and the surrounding areas so they can survive the oil-centered roller coaster. Norton hopes that diversifying the economy will bring a much-needed constancy to the area.

“We’re attracting people who can work from home doing data entry, people who don’t have to live in a certain place to do a job and people who love the recreation aspects,” Norton says. “I feel like we’re stabilizing and hope we can improve from here. The energy industry has always been a huge part of our economy and we will do whatever we can do to support it.”

Part of that effort includes expanding the Vernal Regional Airport runway to accommodate larger planes, and partnering with the Utah State University regional campus to offer technical training and certifications. Uintah High School also offers college concurrent courses to quickly prepare a trained workforce.

“We’re attracting people who can work from home doing data entry, people who don’t have to live in a certain place to do a job and people who love the recreation aspects. I feel like we’re stabilizing and hope we can improve from here. The energy industry has always been a huge part of our economy and we will do whatever we can do to support it.” – Vernal Mayor Sonja Norton

A great place to visit

Tourism plays a big part in the county’s economic stability. With recreational activities like camping, biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and fishing, outdoor enthusiasts are discovering the area—and are excited to explore.

Ashley National Forest is 1.3 million acres of wilderness with access to the highest peak in Utah, Kings Peak. More than 1,000 miles of off-road trails are a magnet for ATV riders. And of course, there’s all the dinosaurs.

Dinosaur National Monument attracts visitors from around the globe hoping to walk the land these giant creatures called home. The monument encompasses 200,000+ acres and includes fossils, footprints, petroglyphs and pictographs.

“We worked with [community branding expert] Roger Brooks. He said he was blown away by the [recreation] facilities here and what we had to offer. He called us the ‘Mothership of Dinosaurs.’”

A resilient community

Vernal is a close-knit community and its residents are loyal to local business owners.

When the economy drops, more spouses go back to work, with many of them opening their own small business ventures that are heavily supported by the community. Norton says she often sees GoFundMe accounts and other fundraising opportunities to help families in need.

“I’ve been impressed with the resiliency of the community and how they can pull together. It reflects how supportive the people here are of local businesses.”

Sylvia Wilkins serves as the Uintah County economic development director. She says one of the biggest obstacles the county faces is the misconception people and businesses have about the county. They usually picture a barren wasteland near the Colorado border, but that couldn’t be further from the truth—and more people are discovering the recreational, business and workforce advantages to be had in the area.

“Our workforce stays here because they love the recreational activities. They get to do their hobbies alongside their business,” Wilkins says. “They don’t think we have the talent here, but we have lots of skilled individuals. On the other hand, businesses relocate here and think they can pay a lower wage just because we’re in rural Utah.”

To further allay misconceptions, county leaders work with EDCUtah to arrange site visits where they show off the region’s treasures to potential employers looking to locate their business in Uintah.

One jewel in the city’s treasure chest is the Uintah Conference Center, which opened two years ago. Paid for, in part, through the county’s mineral leases, the conference center is a 66,000-square-foot facility that accommodates events with up to 1,600 guests. State organizations host conferences at convention center, like the Uintah Basin Energy Summit held in late August, to bring awareness to the area.

Call centers are also making their way to the county. With high turnover rates along the Wasatch Front, these centers are finding qualified employees who are willing to do the job.

Wilkins says the educated workforce is a boon to incoming businesses. When unemployment rates rise, enrollment in higher education courses and certification training rises, too. This creates employees who are well-trained and versatile with skills that are easily adaptable to a variety of employment opportunities.

“They don’t think we have the talent here, but we have lots of skilled individuals. On the other hand, businesses relocate here and think they can pay a lower wage just because we’re in rural Utah.” – Sylvia Wilkins, economic development director, Uintah County

Hope for the future

Without a close connection to the interstate, and deprived of a railway system, Uintah County relies heavily on trucking to import and export goods. Located between Salt Lake City and Denver, Colo., Uintah County is one of the most active crossroads in Northwest Utah. Robust incentive programs like tax, energy and wage benefits, offered through city and state agencies, encourage business relocation efforts.

In June, the unemployment rate in Vernal was 6.9 percent, more than double the rate of the state. While that’s still high, it’s a big drop from the nearly 12 percent rate in the spring of 2016. As oil prices slowly rise, that gradual uptick brings a cautious optimism to the region that is trying its hardest to recover and create a diverse economy that will sustain its businesses and residents.

“The oil and gas industry is stabilized right now,” Wilkins says. “When it gets to the right price they’ll start producing more. Companies are slowly starting to hire again.”

Everyone’s fingers are crossed that when the next downturn occurs, the county’s efforts to diversify will bear fruit, and its economy won’t go the way of the dinosaurs.