St. George Eyes New Tech Future On Top Of Ridge With The City’s Old Airport
St. George doesn’t have much in common with Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, but some people think this desert town has something great to offer the tech world.
Colby Jenkins would know. He previously worked at Google’s headquarters in Northern California but moved last year to the southwest corner of Utah.
“I used to have an hour to a 90-minute commute one way in Silicon Valley,” Jenkins said.
Now his commute is only around 15 minutes to Dixie State University, where he’s the director of the Atwood Innovation Plaza.
“Just the cost of living to raise a family and have a house is nearly impossible to do in Silicon Valley proper,” he said. “I certainly took a pay cut coming here, but I gained quality of life. I gained work-life balance.”
But a quick commute in St. George is getting more difficult as the city expands. It is consistently one of the fastest-growing places in the state and the country, based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Rows of houses and manicured neighborhoods sprawl out into the desert, snaking around the red rock bluffs the region is known for. To help maintain the quality of life Jenkins and others moved here for, city and business leaders are looking up.
Situated on a bluff above the downtown area is the concrete ghost of the city’s old airport. It’s also home to “Tech Ridge.”
“I think it will become by far the greatest place to come to in Southern Utah. And I think it'll be unique even in the nation, that it's just such a great environment,” said Isaac Barlow, the managing partner of Tech Ridge. He’s also the CEO of busybusy, a technology company based on the ridge.
Barlow has an old airport, empty land to work with and big plans. They include 1 million square feet of office space, around 60 acres of parks and trails, 2,400 residential units, restaurants, a brew pub ... and maybe even a zipline. All of it will be within walking distance.
Barlow said he thinks these perks and amenities will differentiate Tech Ridge from other tech centers, like Silicon Slopes in Lehi.
“Silicon Slopes organically grew so fast that you have buildings that popped up in different places and aren't really cohesive,” he said. “For instance, if you're working in other places in Silicon Slopes, go get lunch and see how fun that is.”
People concerned about the growth of St. George, like local environmental groups, are on board with Tech Ridge. That’s because it’s meant to be compact, walkable and is built on landscape that’s already been disturbed.
There’s still a lot that needs to be worked out though, like what kind of retail businesses may make their home there. Barlow envisions a thriving nightlife, but that could be a hard sell to the St. George City Council. Stand-alone bar licenses are currently only allowed in the downtown area, and earlier this year, the city council cut the number of bar permits from four to two.
“Tech Ridge is trying to be a lot of things that St. George lacks,” Barlow said. “For instance, a better nightlife situation. It's not to say that we don't love children and families, we do, but that's not what Tech Ridge is being built to accommodate.”
The “tech” side is also critical to Barlow’s vision. For an area experiencing tremendous growth, but fairly stagnant wages, high-paying jobs are in hot demand.
Brian McCann grew up in St. George. Now he’s the CEO of Intergalactic, an aerospace company on the ridge. Though the company is more engineering-based, he said it fits into the high-tech atmosphere people are trying to create.
McCann said Intergalactic, and other businesses on Tech Ridge, are bringing jobs that historically haven’t been in the area.
“I think St. George is sort of in a weird stage, it's sort of like a teenager — the wages here are below the state average,” he said. “So we need to improve that.”
According to census data, Washington County’s median income in 2019 was $63,595, while Utah’s median income was $75,780.
The city sees Tech Ridge as a chance to diversify the local economy — so it’s not just based on manufacturing, distribution and tourism. City leaders want high-paying jobs, and tech jobs rank in the top 20 highest-paying occupations according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tom Meservy is a professor at the BYU Marriott School of Business. Even as Utah’s Silicon Slopes grows, he said there’s enough opportunity to go around.
“There is so much demand that I don't think we'll reach a saturation point,” he said.
There are only a handful of businesses on Tech Ridge right now. Barlow and other business leaders see it as a place for companies to collaborate. They hope that cross-pollination, assisted by the design of the development, will be a major selling point for people outside the area.
But the St. George businesses are also hoping to foster homegrown talent.
Those involved with Tech Ridge agree that Dixie State University is a big part of that vision. Students and community members can get a start at the Atwood Innovation Plaza at DSU.
Jenkins, that Silicon Valley transplant, described the center as a “business development” pipeline. The plaza has a STEM Academy, a makerspace and resources to help people with their ideas.
“You can literally walk in our building as a kindergartner and eventually walk out as a 12th-grader, matriculating over to Dixie and then from there engaging through the Atwood Innovation Plaza,” he said.
And that, Jenkins said, can lead straight up the road to Tech Ridge.
“We would be that gateway, that green field or sandbox for ideas to grow and develop,” he said.
Business and city leaders are trying to create the ideal tech ecosystem. And they’re banking on the sights and lifestyle St. George is known for, which Meservy said makes sense.
“Quality of life will trump almost anything else and the ability to have a balanced life that includes not just work, but other play opportunities, opportunities for your family as well — that’s what life’s about,” he said.
And that’s what Barlow envisions for the future of Tech Ridge — all on top of an abandoned airport.