Grand County and Moab city are discussing the possibility of creating of a joint economic development position, but a better understanding of government’s role in building the local economy is needed before moving forward, officials from both government entities said during a meeting Jan. 17. The discussion also focused on how to create accountability standards for the joint position.
In order to better understand their role in fostering and diversifying the local economy, city and county council members are first asking an existing economic development committee to brainstorm ideas for an economic vision for the community.
“The city and county councils would appreciate being able to see all the [economic development] pieces that are in play and what their role is and then get some information from the committee as to what they think our role should be,” said county council member Chris Baird.
The conversation surrounding economic development was restarted in November, when then-county council chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs broached the idea of dedicating county staff or resources to economic development and diversification.
Although parts of some job descriptions currently include economic development, currently, neither Grand County nor Moab city has staff solely focused on economic issues.
Moab city had an economic development specialist until September 2015, when the position held by Ken Davey was eliminated after the Moab City Council approved an organizational restructuring under former city manager Rebecca Davidson. City officials said Davidson then assumed economic development-related duties, however, her contract was terminated by the city council on Sept. 30.
Cynthia Gibson, the economic development liaison for Utah State University (USU)-Moab, said the economic development committee has been meeting fairly regularly for the past two years. In addition to USU-Moab, representatives on the committee include the county’s Community Development Director Zacharia Levine, Moab Area Travel Council Director Elaine Gizler, Moab Area Chamber of Commerce Director Jodi Hugentobler, the Small Business Development Center, and the Department of Workforce Services.
The group was most recently engaged in the Area Sector Analysis Process (ASAP), a months-long study facilitated by USU-Moab and designed to help identify compatible industries for the local economy.
USU-Moab Dean Steve Hawks said the group was “ready to go” with the data gathered through the ASAP process when Davidson, who helped facilitate the ASAP process, was terminated as city manager.
“The data from the ASAP process was aggregated, was brought together, was ready to go to the next step when changes to the city's economic development situation changed,” Hawks said. “And so we’re really looking to fill that gap and pull that group back together.”
As the city and county consider government’s role in economic development, Hawks advocated for a truly meaningful joint effort.
“Over the years it has been an uneven contribution between the city and the county and who’s engaged and who’s not engaged,” Hawks said. “And from my perspective it needs to be a joint, combined effort from both the city and the county that has engagement in the process.”
City council member Kyle Bailey said economic development has historically “had no oversight.” He voiced criticism of both city and county efforts in economic development during the last 30 years.
“I don’t know what we’ve accomplished in all these years that I’ve been with the city under economic development,” Bailey said. “I don’t know what we’ve actually done that hasn’t been done by the private sector just taking over and doing it themselves ... I’ve been very disappointed about economic development as far as the city and county goes.”
However, Bailey said contributions to supporting the infrastructure that fosters economic growth have been successful in the community.
“[The focus of the community] for past 30 years is to make the infrastructure stable, have the schools, have the hospital, have the airport — have those things available for private enterprise,” Bailey said. “ ... At the depth of [Moab’s economic] depression, we had the state in here, everybody in here trying to help. Absolutely nothing happened. It was the community that did it. And it was by putting certain things in place — the infrastructure — that caused the success of the area.”
Baird supported that point and said the municipalities should work as “facilitators of growth.” He said issues like affordable housing, drug use, teen pregnancy and crime affect decisions by individuals or businesses about relocating to the Moab area, and can be influenced by the local government.
“If you’re missing those [quality of life] elements and somebody’s thinking of relocating or moving to Moab ... if it’s not a good place for their family, then they won’t come,” Baird said.
Illustrating that establishing “accountability” within economic development is important, city council member Kalen Jones said he would like to see tangible, manifested results if a dedicated position is created.
“I have a pretty good sense of what a lot of our staff in government do, but I’m not sure what the economic development person does,” Jones said. “And at the end of the day, I would like to know that their work results in greater tax revenues for our government, greater employment, or improved wages ... Because ultimately that’s what makes the difference in our community — not creating economic development as its own industry, but fostering other industries.”
Grand County and Moab city officials said they plan to continue their discussion on economic development with the economic development committee in the coming months.