'Our Greatest Export Is Our Kids’: Rural Utah Hungry For More Jobs
Gov. Gary Herbert has set an ambitious goal to kick-start rural Utah’s economy, but there are obstacles to attracting new businesses outside the Wasatch Front.
In his state of the state address back in January, Gov. Herbert told lawmakers he had a specific figure in mind for the number of jobs he’d like to create in rural Utah.
“The fact remains that parts of Utah outside the Wasatch Front are struggling," he told lawmakers. "Tonight I would like us to unite behind a goal of creating 25,000 new jobs in the 25 counties off the Wasatch Front over the next four years.”
Now, four months into his third term as governor, that goal of 25,000 new jobs remains one of his top priorities, and one that he repeats often, including last week at an Energy Summit in Salt Lake.
But travel to any community outside the Wasatch Front and there are hurdles to overcome in reaching this goal. Take Delta, for example, about an hour south of Utah County.
On a recent trip, about a dozen state lawmakers in hunter orange hard hats are standing on the roof of the Intermountain Power Plant as a white plume of smoke rises into the sky from a distant coal stack.
Leo Campbell, a training technician who’s worked there for three decades, is giving the lawmakers the run down of how the plant turns coal into 13 million megawatt hours of energy each year.
He points to their switchyard where electricity is converted and transmitted all the way to southern California, IPP’s largest, most power-hungry customer.
“The big tall building, that’s where we burn the coal — about 350 tons of coal every hour for each unit," he says. "That’s about three and half railroad cars full of coal, when the units are operating at full load, which is about 950 megawatts every hour.”
The plant has a total workforce of about 420 employees, Campbell says. But that may soon change. As California moves away from coal use — the state has set a goal of phasing out all coal-fired generation over the next decade — IPP will have to modernize its operation, and quickly.
Campbell says they plan to build a new natural gas plant adjacent to the coal operation, whose future is in doubt. All told, IPP expects to shed anywhere from 200-300 jobs from the switch.
Steve Styler says that’s a big deal. He’s chairman of the governor’s rural partnership board, who’s tagging along on this portion of the trip. His job is to recommend economic policies that can both help create jobs and mitigate losses.
“So if they do lose their jobs by converting from a coal-fired power plant to gas-fired power plant, that there’s opportunities," he says. "That’s what we’re about is trying to create opportunities and grow businesses in places that people haven’t considered before.”
Styler says a good example is a potash mine, a type of specialty fertilizer, under development just a little ways away on the dry bed of Sevier Lake. Once up and running, the project could create 100-200 jobs, absorbing those people who may be let go of IPP.
“We need to get everyone on the same page to produce those jobs," he says. "I think we can hit it; I’m bullish on rural Utah.”
The transition away from coal to more renewable forms of energy is a big focus of this legislative site trip. About 80 lawmakers attended the two-day tour of six rural counties last month, designed to help the state’s decision makers get outside the city limits and interact with people and parts of the state they’re less familiar with.
From chartered buses, they got to see struggling school districts, a medium security prison and acres upon acres of solar and wind farms, which have replaced farm fields in some areas.
Still, even some legislators are a little dubious of the governor’s lofty jobs target.
“It’s a high goal," says House Speaker Greg Hughes, sitting outside Millard High School in Millard County, snacking on bacon made from one of the nearby Smithfield pig farms, one of the largest employers in the area.
Hughes says he’s not so much interested in a hard number as making sure there are decent, high paying jobs that allow people to stay and raise their families.
"It doesn’t hurt to shoot high, but I will tell you, we could see good job creation of a number much smaller than that and still make a real measurable difference," he says.
So what’s a more realistic number?
“I don’t want to limit us," he says. "I think if the governor wants 24-25,000 jobs, I’m not opposed to it, but I do think if you have 1,000 jobs come to these areas, you would see a real measurable impact.”
Tammy Pearson is a Beaver County commissioner. She says it can be hard to convince businesses there’s an employee base outside of Salt Lake.
“Like businesses themselves are afraid to move off of the Wasatch Front. It’s a struggle for them, but I think if they ever came down here and gave us a chance, I think they’d love it.”
She says when new industries move in, they see a boost in construction jobs but those don't last. In recent years, she says, their population has declined.
“We’re trying not to export our kids,” she says. “In Beaver County, our biggest fear is we’re not moving forward, we’re not growing, we’re dying.”
This refrain, a fear of losing their kids to bigger metropolitan areas, is echoed at stops throughout rural Utah.
Pearson says it’s not that they want to grow too big, they don’t have the infrastructure for it, but she says if they were able to spotlight and market what’s unique about their part of the state, they may be able to get younger families to plant some roots and stick around.