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Are better times ahead for Utah’s coal country?

Outside the Wasatch Front and southwestern Utah, many rural economies are struggling. This is especially true in Utah’s coal country — Carbon and Emery counties.

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A loader moves coal at the Huntington Power Plant in Huntington on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. A new report by the Utah Foundation examines coal production in Utah and its nexus with energy generation.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

When we think of Utah’s economy, we think of plentiful jobs, rising salaries, booming real estate, new businesses popping up and rapid population growth.

But the good economic times don’t extend across the state. Outside the Wasatch Front and southwestern Utah, many rural economies are struggling. This is especially true in Utah’s coal country — Carbon and Emery counties.

However, hope is being rekindled in these two counties thanks to a large “intervention” by a broad group of stakeholders. If the intervention is successful, it could become a model for economic development in other Utah rural areas and in declining coal economies across the country.

This is an excellent example of what we can accomplish in Utah when a diverse group of motivated leaders collaborate in a good cause.

In 1985, more than 2,500 people were mining coal in Carbon and Emery counties, earning good wages. By 2018, only 925 coal jobs were left, the result of automation and a weak coal market. Utah coal production peaked in 2001 and has declined in 12 of the last 17 years.

The industry weakness has been devastating for the two counties. Overall employment fell 16% from 2008 to 2017 in the two counties, compared to a 17% employment increase statewide, according to data compiled by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Unemployment is two points higher than the state average and would be worse if people weren’t leaving to seek jobs elsewhere. The Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants, both in Emery County, are likely to close within a decade, greatly exacerbating the employment problem.

Personal income declined by 13% from 2011 to 2016, compared to a 20.8% increase statewide. Nearly 15% of the population lives in poverty in coal country and 20% of housing units are vacant. The region also faces an opioid crisis, with overdose and addiction-related deaths three times the rate of the state and nation.

The Utah Coal Country Strike Team, led by the Gardner Institute and funded with a $3.5 million budget, including funding from the Alliance for the American Dream and a $500,000 appropriation from the Legislature, is helping the two counties diversify their economies and retrain their workforces. The multi-disciplinary, data-driven strike team started work in October 2018 and is focusing on four interventions with the goal of raising incomes of 10,000 households by 10% by the end of 2020:

  1. Workforce training and jobs. Partnerships are being developed to train local job seekers in technical and creative jobs like web design, coding, cybersecurity, drafting, and to fill needs in health care and manufacturing. Dozens of Utah high-tech companies are participating. Training centers, shared workspaces, and a business resource center are being developed.
  2. Housing revitalization. More jobs and population growth will boost the housing market. Revitalization investments will help renew housing price appreciation.
  3. Tourism infrastructure. The region offers great attractions like the San Rafael Swell, Buckhorn Wash, Nine-Mile Canyon, lakes and streams, camping, hiking and fishing. Motels, restaurants and other infrastructure are needed.
  4. Economic development incentives. Custom incentives, including Opportunity Zone investments are being considered, because traditional incentives aren’t working well.

The strike team includes more than 70 leaders, including local and state elected officials, economists, data scientists, demographers, sociologists, political scientists, economic development professionals, business and community leaders. Utah State University, the University of Utah and Silicon Slopes are all involved.

I applaud this remarkable, collaborative effort to revitalize Utah’s coal country. I look forward to the lessons learned and the results at the end of 2020 when the initiative ends. More is at stake here than just the economies of two rural counties. If successful, this model can be used to extend Utah’s strong economy into other struggling parts of the state.  

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.