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Bringing Utah Coal Country Back To Life

Photo of natural gas pump in the desert.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Coal bed methane production near Price, Utah.

Rural communities across the U.S. face tough times. 

But in Utah’s coal country — Carbon and Emery counties — the “Coal Country Strike Team” is stepping in to help. 

“It’s like the Navy Seals,” said Price City Mayor Mike Kourianos, one of two small town mayors recently chosen to co-chair the effort. “They have a task, they’re going in to rescue.”

Last week, the team announced Kourianos, along with Castle Dale Mayor Danny Van Wagoner, is joining big players like the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments. They hope to revitalize the region’s economy and, in particular, raise the incomes of 10,000 households in the area by 10% by the end of 2020. 

That could mean big things for a region where jobs have declined by 16% in the last ten years. 

“The days of our natural resources paying the bills, that's been a change going on for decades,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. 

Despite a booming statewide economy and low unemployment, Carbon and Emery counties are suffering from a decade-long recession, Gochnour said. The strike team’s efforts are focusing on bringing new jobs and training opportunities, housing revitalization, and targeted investment to the area. 

Natalie Gouchner draws a graph on a whiteboard.
Credit Jon Reed / KUER
Natalie Gouchnour explains how comparing Utah’s coal country to 150 other coal-dependent communities will show how successful the strike team’s efforts are.

And efforts like it are essential. A recent report from the Brookings Institution found that the U.S. tech sector, which has generated huge wealth and influence across the globe, has also “helped spawn a growing gap between the nation’s dynamic ‘superstar’ metropolitan areas and most everywhere else.” While Utah’s Silicon Slopes doesn’t quite reach superstar status, the report points to the same splintering happening between urban and rural areas. 

The report’s authors argue the federal government needs to step in to prevent the “crisis of regional imbalance” from getting worse, in part by selecting key smaller regions to invest in.

Kourianos said the Coal Country Strike Team could be a model for those kinds of changes in the 150 other coal communities across the country. 

Still, not every struggling community can be saved. Carbon and Emery counties were targeted because they had assets that make revitalization more likely, Gochnour said. The area is close to urban Utah — about 90 minutes from Silicon Slopes — and has access to fast, broadband internet and a local university campus, Utah State University Eastern. 

“It's just a matter of resources,” Gochnour said. “You don't have the money to do everything that you'd like to do. So you got to go where you can get a return and where you can have the greatest impact.”

But that still leaves other parts of rural Utah to explore alternate plans for rebuilding their economy.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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