Moab visitation has slowed in recent years

Other key indicators highlight need for economic diversification

Zacharia Levine presents his annual “State of the Local Economy” presentation during the 2020 Canyonlands Business Summit on Feb. 9. Photo by Carter Pape

Economic data recently compiled by Grand County officials for an update to Moab’s business leaders suggests that the city’s tourism economy has slowed in recent years following more than a decade of unfettered growth and that wage growth has, as it has for years, not kept pace with increasing housing costs.

Zacharia Levine, the director of Grand County’s Department of Community and Economic Development, presented the update at the 2020 Canyonlands Business Summit on Feb. 9. Among the top takeaways from the presentation: The affordability gap in Moab — the difference between the cost of a typical Moab home and the price of a home the typical Moab wage earner can afford — has increased to $164,000. Rental housing, in turn, is also drastically more expensive than what Moabites can afford.

Although the trends in Grand County related to housing and wage growth were alarming for low-wage earners, the picture in San Juan County was even worse: Since 2013, workers have paid higher prices each year for housing and, overall, suffered decreases to their monthly wage.

Have changes to Southeastern Utah’s recreation economy impacted your business? Let us know.

Housing costs continue to outstrip wages

The Times-Independent reported last year on the wide gap in housing affordability in Grand County — the worst such gap in the State of Utah — and trends since that report was published have indicated no substantial change, and they might have worsened, to this underlying reality.

In San Juan County, although the gap in housing affordability is less, the trends are worse. While the sales price of homes in the area has increased almost 70% since 2013, wages have decreased roughly 5%. This compares with a roughly 45% increase in home sale prices in Grand County during that time and wage growth of 15%, according to data compiled by Levine.

This graph illustrates the stark difference in wage growth — or over the longer-term, wage decline — and changes to the median sales price of homes in San Juan County. Graph courtesy of Grand County Community and Economic Development

Grand’s population shrank last year

The data Levine presented explored demographic changes in Grand and San Juan counties, as well. Citing research from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, Levine presented data that suggested Grand County’s total population dropped in 2019 for the first time in over 10 years. Data scheduled for release in March from the U.S. Census Bureau may provide a clearer picture on the figures and what they mean.

This graph shows Grand County’s population in blue and percent change in red. 2019 saw the first decline in total population in 10 years. Graph courtesy of Grand County Community and Economic Development

The possible contraction in Grand County’s permanent population is an outlier in its modern history, which has been one of consistent, predictable growth. San Juan County’s permanent population continued growing at a similar pace to that of recent years.

The possible impacts of a shrinking population in Grand County are complex, but whether the trend continues short- or medium-term remains to be seen.

Efforts toward economic diversification

As for trends that indicate a strengthening of the Grand County economy, most had to do with diversification: That is, growth in sectors other than lodging and accommodation.

Although, unsurprisingly, accommodation and food services saw the largest number of new employees (269 in total) between 2015 and 2018, Moab’s manufacturing sector had the greatest relative increase, more than doubling in size over those three years with 60 jobs added in the sector.

Transportation and warehousing also saw substantial growth in employment, increasing at 72% over three years. Real estate sale and leasing, wholesale trade, and health care and social assistance all saw more than 20% employment increases, and many of them also saw substantial wage growth.

Growth in these sectors suggests increasing resiliency in the local economy, including against fears of an impending recession that have seized many Americans in recent months. Among the sectors hit hardest by recession: tourism and lodging. With growth in other sectors, local workers stand a greater chance of making it through any declines in Moab tourism.

According to Levine’s analysis, Moab still has a long way to go before it is as diversified as other Utah counties — Salt Lake, Weber and Washington being the top examples — but the city and county have taken some steps they hope will set up the local economy for success and durability.