Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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    County to diversify post-virus

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    While municipal budgets around the country suffer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the county’s will see cuts far greater than most due to the specialized nature of the Moab economy — a specialization that has suffered the brunt of the economic blow caused by the coronavirus.

    Grand County courthouse
    File photo

    The impacts of the pandemic have renewed local leaders’ focus on a topic many have worried over for years but must now confront in much starker terms: Economic diversification.

    The immediate impacts of COVID-19

    Despite Utah beginning a phased reopening late last month, with Moab along for the ride starting May 1, local visitation has been a fraction of what it typically is at this time of year, according to local lodging businesses. Business owners who sit on the Moab Area Travel Council’s advisory board said last week that they were filling 15-20% of the rooms they were allowed to fill under the local health order.

    Travel in the United States and across the world has fallen dramatically. According to data from Aislelabs, an enterprise software provider with customers in the transportation and hospitality industries, flight movement in North America during the third week of April was down 75% of normal. Globally, the change was closer to an 85% decrease.

    The changes have meant that the travel and hospitality industries — the bedrock of Moab’s economy — have been among the hardest hit amid the pandemic, leading to mass furloughs of public employees due to hits to local revenues.

    Although virtually no localities have gone unscathed during the pandemic, the suffering in Moab that has led local officials to consider 30% cuts to public budgets might not be so bad were the area’s economic pie larger or more varied.

    The new opportunities

    According to Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells, one path forward for the county as it looks to diversify its local economy is a strategy of attracting the newly enlarged pool of remote workers — many of whom may continue to work remotely after the pandemic fades in severity — to move to Moab.

    “In terms of diversification, one of the big opportunities we have is to level up components of our community that will allow for an influx and a health habitat for remote workforce and attracting corporate relocation to Moab,” Wells said. “That’s not the only opportunity for diversification, but that was something that we all agreed on that we saw the state could help us.”

    In particular, technology companies like Google and Twitter have given many employees the permanent option of working remotely rather than working from the office, a change that Wells said he expects to see in other economic sectors as well in the wake of the pandemic.

    Curtis said that Moab was “a place that can attract professionals,” and in such a case that people are freed up to work from wherever they please, destinations like Moab could become the new home of workers of all kinds.

    “This is a positive development in a somber time,” Wells said of the opportunity.

    The existing plans

    A draft plan developed in 2017 by the Grand County Community and Economic Development Department outlined opportunities for economic diversification in Moab and highlighted remote work as a potential area for local growth.

    The plan, titled “More Than a Playground,” draws on the theme of turning Moab into a hub for activity beyond just recreation. The plan envisions bolstering infrastructure to enhance the area’s capacity for economic diversification — from investments in higher education to housing and healthcare — as a means to attract new businesses and a remote workforce that, among other things, could help soften blow of the next economic crisis.

    The plan outlines strategies, such as incentive packages to sweeten the deal for businesses on the fence about expanding or moving to Moab, public-private partnerships, betterment of quality of life, including downtown improvements and dark skies preservation, groundwater management to preserve the local watershed during expansion, and more.

    The plan was never finalized or published, but Director Zacharia Levine said he hopes to make a push “in the near future” to circulate and collect feedback on a final draft that the city and county can then adopt and act on.

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