clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Rural Utah's changing faces

You hear the refrain everywhere you go in rural Utah from Price to Vernal, from Kanab to Blanding: "Our biggest export is our children."

That claim is hard to prove with demographic statistics. Since 1988, rural populations have been increasing at a faster rate than metropolitan areas: In 1994 the rural rate of growth was double that along the Wasatch Front.But statistics don't tell the whole story. Talk to just about any family in rural Utah and they will rattle off a list of immediate family members - brothers, sisters, sons, daughters - who pulled up stakes to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere, usually on the Wasatch Front.

The reason goes beyond the numbers - and yes, rural populations are growing beyond the ability of many local communities to deal with it. The real issues here are the unemployment rates double and triple those seen along the Wasatch Front and the paltry service-industry wages that force rural families to work two or three or four jobs just to make ends meet.

Quite simply, many of the young, rural, college-educated Utahns who find themselves saddled with the lack of economic opportunity in their hometowns are fleeing to the Wasatch Front.

And those envisioned as the economic future of rural Utah are being replaced in the rural demographic picture by waves of retirees seeking the rural lifestyle, cash-heavy urban refugees wanting to be gentlemen farmers and more-transient individuals willing to take temporary service jobs in the tourism industry. All of them bring with them a different set of moral and philosophical values.

In effect, the traditional face of Utah's rural communities is changing, and longtime rural residents are discomfited by what they see.

"I have seen a dramatic shift in people's attitudes from when I was first elected as a county commissioner in 1984," said Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch. "In those days, people wanted industry, and they probably weren't selective about what type of industry.

"But with the growth in St. George and Cedar City, people have seen what it brings. Now they are more interested in preserving their lifestyle and their quality of life. They see the future is going to be in preserving that lifestyle, that small-town atmosphere."

It is an atmosphere where the LDS chapel is the focal point of all religious and social activities. One where the owner of the local grocery or hardware store greets you by name when you walk in. One that demands hard work, frugality and a basic philosophy that eschews government handouts.

"I can understand why they do not want change to occur. What they have is a delightful way to live," said Gov. Mike Leavitt. "But change is coming, and they cannot ignore that it is happening. My objective is to help them shape it while they have the opportunity."

Leavitt has made the "economic resettlement of rural Utah" a top priority of his second administration. He is offering the assistance of state planners to help communities develop long-range master plans that will detail what the community wants to look like five or 10 or 20 years down the road.

And Leavitt wants to give the communities the technical assistance to achieve economic targets - before growth explodes beyond the ability of small-town city councils and county commissions to effectively control it.

However, economic prosperity in rural Utah is, in many respects, a devil's bargain. One one hand, town fathers anguish over the loss of the best and brightest young people to better-paying jobs on the Wasatch Front.

On the other, they have come to recognize that the aggressive economic development that is needed to keep them home will also bring waves of outsiders that could change the religious, political and social makeup of their traditional communities.

"People move here because they like the communities," Hatch said. "But you get enough new people moving in and it changes the flavor of the community and the culture."

For example, the picturesque town of Boulder in Garfield County is on the northern fringe of the Escalante Canyons and Lake Powell where it can take advantage of a growing tourism market.

But that market demands certain amenities that many local residents oppose. For example, attempts by a local lodge to acquire a liquor license for its restaurant has met with fierce local opposition from town fathers, and the conflict has resulted in considerable negative publicity.

By refusing local consent to the liquor license, town fathers insist they are only preserving local values - values fundamental to the dominant Mormon faith in that community. But that has now divided the community, those wanting to embrace the economic potential of tourism and those fearful of compromising their pioneer heritage.

The underlying conflict between old and new is found throughout rural Utah. "No matter how hard we try to keep our values intact, there will be people moving in that do not have the same values," said outgoing Fillmore Mayor Keith Gillins, who has preached tolerance in his economic development efforts in central Utah.

"We can try to influence them with our current values as a community, but we will not influence all of them, and each rural community has to be prepared to accept the values of other people."

Things like alcohol in restaurants, theaters that show R-rated movies and even softball in the city parks on Sundays.

To reject those newcomers and their values will only create conflict, Gillins said. "And small communities cannot handle conflict. It tears them apart from the inside."

Yet if communities resist economic change, they will certainly stagnate. And without a revitalized rural economy, the flight to urban centers will unavoidably continue over the next decade, and the chasm between urban prosperity and rural despair will grow increasingly wider.

And that will likely have ripple effects all along the Wasatch Front. State leaders say one of the keys to slowing growth along the Wasatch Front is to have an economically healthy rural Utah, not just to keep rural young people home but to offer immigrants an attractive alternative to the already-overcrowded urban areas.

And there are certainly economic bright spots that offer hope that rural Utah can and will thrive. In Beaver County, a massive hog operation has revitalized the local economy, offering a substantial tax base and jobs that have lured many refugees back home. Corporate farms in Millard County are also doing well.

Carbon County is growing, too, thanks to new non-coal businesses that have broadened the local tax base and offered employment opportunities to those displaced by downsizing in coal employment.

And Grand County is one of the fastest growing anywhere in the state, thanks to a thriving tourism and recreation economy, as well as an emerging light manufacturing sector focused on recreation products.

But those areas are exceptions. For every community like Moab that has a growing population and thriving economy, there is a nearby community that may be growing in the number of people living there but is struggling economically. And there is no consensus how to deal with the situation.

"We are going to grow and we have accepted that," Hatch said. "What we are struggling with is how to grow into something we want to be."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Issues Utahns are very concerned about:

Preserving Utah's suburban lifestyles 21%

Utah's economy 43%

Transportation 50%

Housing 39%

Education 66%

Crime 66%

Human services 40%

Environment 38%

*Preserving Utah's traditional rural lifestyles 30%

*****

How concerned are Utahns about:

Preserving Utah's traditional rural lifestyle

Not Concerned............Very Concerned

4% 3% 9% 10% 26% 17% 30%

Don't Know: 1%

This poll of 606 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Dec. 18-20, 1997. It has a margin of error of +/-4 percent.

*****

Utah's rural population by County

County: Beaver

1995: 5,350

2000: 6,935

2005: 7,612

2010: 8,398

Percent increase over 1995: 57

2020: 9,659

Percent increase over 1995: 80.5

County: Box Elder

1995: 38,900

2000: 42,667

2005: 47,016

2010: 52,466

Percent increase over 1995: 34.9

2020: 61,290

Percent increase over 1995: 57.6

County: Cache

1995: 80,200

2000: 93,418

2005: 101,666

2010: 113,126

Percent increase over 1995: 41.1

2020: 132,047

Percent increase over 1995: 64.6

County: Carbon

1995: 21,100

2000: 22,699

2005: 24,327

2010: 26,031

Percent increase over 1995: 23.4

2020: 28,683

Percent increase over 1995: 35.9

County: Daggett

1995: 750

2000: 855

2005: 924

2010: 1,032

Percent increase over 1995: 37.6

2020: 1,244

Percent increase over 1995: 65.9

County: Duchesne

1995: 13,500

2000: 14,390

2005: 14,998

2010: 16,308

Percent increase over 1995: 20.8

2020: 18,894

Percent increase over 1995: 40

County: Emery

1995: 10,700

2000: 11,211

2005: 12,060

2010: 12,888

Percent increase over 1995: 20.4

2020: 13,343

Percent increase over 1995: 24.7

County: Garfield

1995: 4,300

2000: 4,748

2005: 5,200

2010: 5,730

Percent increase over 1995: 33.3

2020: 6,539

Percent increase over 1995: 52.1

County: Grand

1995: 8,350

2000: 10,986

2005: 13,757

2010: 16,844

Percent increase over 1995: 101.7

2020: 22,395

Percent increase over 1995: 168.2

County: Iron

1995: 26,900

2000: 34,371

2005: 39,007

2010: 44,457

Percent increase over 1995: 65.3

2020: 54,148

Percent increase over 1995: 101.3

County: Juab

1995: 7,150

2000: 8,188

2005: 8,871

2010: 9,924

Percent increase over 1995: 38.8

2020: 11,846

Percent increase over 1995: 65.7

County: Kane

1995: 5,900

2000: 7,483

2005: 8,780

2010: 10,309

Percent increase over 1995: 74.7

2020: 13,149

Percent increase over 1995: 123.6

County: Millard

1995: 11,900

2000: 12,908

2005: 13,580

2010: 14,738

Percent increase over 1995: 23.8

2020: 16,647

Percent increase over 1995: 39.9

County: Morgan

1995: 6,500

2000: 6,985

2005: 7,654

2010: 8,573

Percent increase over 1995: 31.9

2020: 10,369

Percent increase over 1995: 59.5

County: Piute

1995: 1,400

2000: 1,670

2005: 1,784

2010: 1,938

Percent increase over 1995: 38.4

2020: 2,164

Percent increase over 1995: 54.6

County: Rich

1995: 1,800

2000: 1,879

2005: 1,966

2010: 2,096

Percent increase over 1995: 16.4

2020: 2,268

Percent increase over 1995: 26

County: San Juan

1995: 13,500

2000: 13,535

2005: 14,358

2010: 15,512

Percent increase over 1995: 14.9

2020: 17,273

Percent increase over 1995: 27.9

County: Sanpete

1995: 19,200

2000: 22,362

2005: 24,460

2010: 27,568

Percent increase over 1995: 43.6

2020: 33,247

Percent increase over 1995: 73.2

County: Sevier

1995: 17,300

2000: 19,618

2005: 21,252

2010: 23,752

Percent increase over 1995: 37.3

2020: 28,245

Percent increase over 1995: 63.3

County: Summit

1995: 22,400

2000: 27,509

2005: 31,578

2010: 37,798

Percent increase over 1995: 68.7

2020: 50,728

Percent increase over 1995: 126.5

County: Tooele

1995: 29,600

2000: 35,280

2005: 40,122

2010: 46,473

Percent increase over 1995: 57

2020: 59,678

Percent increase over 1995: 101.6

County: Uintah

1995: 23,400

2000: 24,938

2005: 26,481

2010: 29,225

Percent increase over 1995: 24.9

2020: 34,568

Percent increase over 1995: 47.7

County: Wasatch

1995: 12,200

2000: 14,417

2005: 17,145

2010: 20,243

Percent increase over 1995: 65.9

2020: 26,012

Percent increase over 1995: 113.2

County: Washington

1995: 68,500

2000: 86,218

2005: 106,590

2010: 130,521

Percent increase over 1995: 90.5

2020: 177,558

Percent increase over 1995: 133.3

County: Wayne

1995: 2,300

2000: 2,621

2005: 2,851

2010: 3,207

Percent increase over 1995: 39.4

2020: 3,883

Percent increase over 1995: 68.8

TOTAL RURAL:

1995: 453,100

2000: 527,891

2005: 594,039

2010: 679,157

Percent increase over 1995: 49.9

2020: 835,922

Percent increase over 1995: 84.5

TOTAL UTAH:

1995: 1,959,000

2000: 2,172,498

2005: 2,419,972

2010: 2,737,166

Percent increase over 1995: 39.7

2020: 3,311,276

Percent increase over 1995: 69