A new report details the lopsided growth between Utah’s rural and urban counties, including a snapshot of the economic conditions in Grand County. ABU Education Fund, self-described as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a strong, educational voice by creating resources that advance civic engagement and good governance,” released the report on Jan. 17. The report acknowledges Grand County’s reliance on the tourism economy, stating, “While summer tourist seasons leave the area bustling, the rest of Grand County is relatively undeveloped. Outside of Moab, the county is scattered with small developments and ghost towns.”
The report, titled “Reaching Across the Urban-Rural Divide,” begins by noting that “three-quarters” of Utah’s population lives along the Wasatch Front. “As the ninth most urbanized state in the nation, Utah is a place where the urban-rural divide runs especially deep,” said the introduction. A report by the Utah’s Rural Planning Group cited by ABU identifies the urban-rural split as one of Utah’s key issues by stating, “politically, economically, and even socially, the differences between these two groups of communities continues to widen.”
Most of the economic opportunity resides in the state’s urban areas, the ABU report said, which results in higher unemployment, a lack of economic diversity as well as a skill and education gap in the workforce for rural counties.
The report’s county profile of Grand shows its median household income is $46,658, “significantly lower than the statewide average of $65,325.” It notes that “earnings per job have stabilized and per capita income has increased” in the last decade, though it does not mention any increases in the cost of living. The economic analysis also shows “tourism, recreation, and public land sectors have helped increase success in other economic areas.” The report also points out that in 2015, “roughly two-thirds of local residents indicated public lands were ‘extremely important’ to their business.”
Grand County’s unemployment rate is 5.3 percent compared to the state average of 3.2 percent, according to the report, but there is more nuance to that figure. While the annual unemployment rate is 5.3 percent, it “fluctuates greatly throughout the year.” The report said, “In 2017, the unemployment rate was 14.6 percent in January but dropped to 3.2 percent during the tourist season in July and August.” It adds, “Some economic issues can be attributed to the unstable, part-time seasonal work in the tourism industry.” The travel and tourism sector “accounts for 47 percent of employment” in Grand County, according to the report, but, “Grand County has also seen growth in sectors including accommodation, food services, real estate and health care.”
In the health section of Grand County’s profile, the report states, “southeast Utah – particularly Grand, Carbon, and Emery counties – has had significantly higher rates of prescription opioid deaths compared to the rest of the state.” However, the report quotes Will Barnhardt, assistant director of Grand County Emergency Medical Services, saying, “the opioid crisis is not as bad in Grand County compared to other rural areas in Utah, but still remains a strong concern.”
One thing Moab’s economy has going for it is the education level of Grand County residents. The report says that 27.8 percent of adults in Grand County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, which means it “outscores all the other rural counties” in that category. The report also mentions the “commendable” rating Grand County High School received in postsecondary readiness on the most recent school report card from the state board of education.
The report concludes its profile of Grand County by discussing the environment. It notes how Grand County’s public lands have driven recreation and tourism in the area but also cites growing concerns about negative impacts on natural resources. The one example it gives is of high visitation to Arches National Park causing soil erosion. “Environmentalists are concerned that public desire to explore the outdoors will soon exceed the capacity of the area,” the report said.
In its conclusion, the report described how Utah is divided into two separate landscapes: bustling urban communities that are “growing and thriving” and rural areas that are “losing residents and opportunities.” Of the 16 counties identified as rural by the State of Utah’s Rural Planning Group, all have a lower percentage of college graduates than the state average, 15 have a higher unemployment rate, 15 have a higher percentage of senior citizens, 14 have a lower median household income, and 13 have a higher poverty rate.
The report does acknowledge rural communities have some advantages as well. Though the factors are less quantifiable, “natural beauty, outdoor lifestyle and sense of belonging” all contribute to quality of life in rural communities, said the report.
To address the economic issues faced by Utah’s rural counties, Gov. Gary Herbert started the “25k Jobs by 2020” initiative. Part of that initiative included asking Utah’s non-urban counties to submit economic development plans. Grand County’s submission, which was shared on Sept. 28, 2018, identified economic diversification, wage growth, construction of a Utah State University campus, increasing housing stock and enhancing quality of life as primary goals. Unlike other counties, Grand did not list any strengths, but it did report traffic congestion, housing affordability and electric stability as major weaknesses.
The only state incentive program Grand mentioned using was the Business Expansion and Retention program, which provides grants to organizations and communities for economic development projects. Asked how the state can support its development efforts, Grand County responded by requesting more flexibility with the use of Transient Room Tax funds, support for the USU campus, funding for workforce housing, transportation funding, funding the Utah rural physicians loan repayment program, and graduated income tax relief for rural Utah.
The ABU Education Fund report concluded with a call for unity. “There’s work to be done if rural Utah is to overcome its economic problems and live up to its potential,” the report said. “It can be done most effectively if all Utahns – urban, suburban and rural – work together. And it should be planned and guided by those who know rural Utah best – the people who live and work there.”