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Rural communities can reinvent their economies, Utah governor tells other states' chief executives

FILE - Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019.
FILE - Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Rural communities can come up with innovative solutions to sharing in a strong economy, Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday during a National Governors Association panel discussion.

Herbert, who led the panel on "Innovative Strategies for Rural and Disinvested Communities," used the Carbon County town of Helper as an example of a community that rebounded.

After Rocky Mountain Power shut down the 60-year-old coal-fired Carbon Power Plant more than four years ago, Helper was "going to be a ghost town," the governor said.

But a local government official who was also a painter has helped reinvent the town named for the extra train engines needed to help coal cars up the steep railroad tracks toward Soldier Summit as a haven for artists, Herbert said.

"That's just one little story, one instance, a sliver of what can be done out there as we reinvent ourselves," Utah's governor said, to attract "people to come who are happy to live there."

He kicked off the hourlong discussion by describing his goal of creating 25,000 jobs in rural Utah by 2020, telling the audience of about 100 people the state is "right on target," with about 20,000 new jobs in place.

But he cautioned that local governments can't rely on states to fix their economies.

"Just like states too often look to Washington, D.C., for 'Here's the solution to your problem,' we have local governments do the same, saying, 'Well the state can bail us out,'" Herbert said. "We decided that's probably not the right way in Utah."

He said state economic development officials instead met with local officials to hear what their plans were and told them they were responsible for carrying them out rather than the state waiving "some magic wand."

One panelist, Utah state Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, had a succinct answer for Herbert when he asked what lawmakers around the country should be doing to enhance opportunities in rural communities.

"The government, the best thing they can do is get the hell out of the way," Hinkins said, calling it "ridiculous" that restrictions have made the United States too dependent on other countries for uranium and hurt efforts to repurpose coal.

"I'm just grateful that President Trump is making it a level playing field," Hinkins said. "The extraction industry is not going to go away. ...Companies go where they're welcome, where their investment will go the furthest."

Appalachian Regional Commission Executive Director Scott Hamilton, another panelist, said the region that stretches from northern Mississippi to upstate New York has been hit with a loss of manufacturing and some mining jobs.

He said Virginia has had success promoting a "music trail" that brings people to the area as tourists and even encourages some to move there. In Pennsylvania, an elk herd is having a similar effect, Hamilton said.

Taking advantage of cultural and natural resources is an effective strategy for economic development, he said, encouraging rural communities to "do some R and D ... rip off and duplicate" the type of focus that's worked elsewhere.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills spoke about her state being the most rural in the discussion. She said 90 percent of Maine is forested and the largest city has some 60,000 residents, while 11 million acres are considered "unorganized territories."

Mills said regular bond issues to invest in conservation easements have helped, as has a large number of craft breweries and special events like marathons that attract visitors.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, the chairman of the Western Governors Association, said the group's initiative this year under his leadership is to "reimagine the rural West."

Herbert acknowledged the challenge rural communities face and reminded the audience of his pledge as governor to work to keep government "off our backs and out of our wallets."

Friday, the last of three days of meetings for some 25 governors from around the country, marked a new leadership team for the National Governors Association. Herbert, a past chairman, was named to the association's executive committee.