Utah's Rural Economies Are Still Struggling, But Image May Be Partly To Blame
It’s become a familiar talking point in Utah: The state has one of the fastest growing, most diverse economies in the country. Its slew of hungry companies is starved for workers. Yet as urban Utah continues to grow, rural communities across the state are struggling to hold onto their jobs, falling ever behind a shifting economy.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is hopeful that technology — namely, internet access — can offer those rural communities fresh opportunities. He traveled to Logan on Tuesday to speak at an event hosted by the non-profit Silicon Slopes about ways to level the economic playing field. He noted that while technology is not the solution to all of rural Utah’s problems, it’s an important tool for businesses of all kinds.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s music or manufacturing, whatever it is, tech is playing an increasingly important role,” Cox said. But the real promise of technology is that it “gives us the opportunity to educate people, to open up markets — world markets — that never existed before, to connect rural Utah with the rest of Utah in very powerful ways.”
He offered an example from a government experiment last year, in which state employees were given the chance to work remotely for most of the week. The pilot program found that working from home boosted productivity by 20% and reduced carbon emissions, and was eventually implemented statewide. Cox said he would even consider working remotely himself in order to avoid his two-hour commute on red air days.
Paul Davis, with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, agrees that when it comes to growing businesses, location doesn’t matter so much anymore. He pointed to bedding company Malouf and pajama maker Lazyone, both of which have been able to find success in rural Cache County.
“If you said logically, why are you here, there’s no logic for them to be here but they’ve been very successful,” Davis said.
Davis and Cox both look to Cache County as one of the notable success stories in rural Utah. David said the internet, along with transportation companies, has made geography immaterial, which presents big opportunities for rural areas.
Luckily for Utah, 96% of the state has access to broadband speeds of at least 25 mbps. Still, there are areas that fall far below that. About three quarters of San Juan County has no high-speed internet access and Beaver, Utah’s least connected city, is about 3% covered.
But for Chase Anderson, beyond access to the internet, rural communities also have an image problem. He started Silicon Slopes’ Logan chapter and was the only one of his friends to stay in Cache County after graduating from Utah State University.
“I just really wanted to stay. And so I found a way to make it work,” he said.
Anderson said others left because they didn’t see the same opportunities he did and headed south to Utah’s urban centers.
For him, that perception is a major battle rural communities will have to keep fighting, especially those farther behind Cache County. He said Utahns have seen rural areas exporting people for years, so it will be hard to convince a new generation that regions outside the Wasatch Front can support new companies and opportunity.
“Other people have to see success stories, they have to see their friends staying,” he said. “I think it's little by little, company by company, individual by individual, getting a job or starting a company and showing other people that it's possible.”