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Utah’s rural communities need more business opportunities

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development announced Thursday that its board of directors recently approved eight rural Utah businesses for Rural Fast Track grants. Mark Duffy, Fotolia via Adobe Stock

One of Utah’s biggest challenges is the lack of economic opportunity in many rural communities. While Utah’s urban regions are flourishing, most areas are struggling outside of the Wasatch Front, the Wasatch Back and Washington County.

The causes are many, but they include the decline of traditional mineral extraction industries, especially the coal industry. In addition, the agriculture industry has been consolidated and mechanized so that far fewer workers produce increasing amounts of food products. And while tourism in Utah is booming and is critical to rural Utah, many tourism jobs don’t pay enough to support a family.

Clearly, our state needs an ambitious, comprehensive and coordinated strategy to revitalize rural Utah so that more of Utah’s growth is spread across the state. Better population distribution will mean less congestion, better air quality and lower housing inflation on the Wasatch Front.

We already have some excellent strategies and building blocks to accelerate rural economic development.

For example, Sen. Scott Sandall, from Box Elder County, has proposed legislation establishing a Rural County Grant Program using $10 million from previous economic development appropriations. The funds could be used for business recruitment, development and expansion; workforce training; and infrastructure and capital improvements.

Also, in its Clean Air & Climate Roadmap, Milepost 6, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute has suggested a number of priority actions to revitalize rural Utah. Among them are:

• Prioritize rural economic development investment and partnerships in energy-dependent areas like Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Millard, San Juan, Sevier and Uintah counties, building upon each community’s competitive assets.

• Diversify rural economics by providing an array of information technology and other training opportunities, including scholarships and a pathway to jobs.

• Invest in placemaking. Rural Utah will become a more attractive place to invest as Main streets, other thoroughfares, and tourism opportunities receive funding for improvements.

• Invest in housing. Housing stock revitalization will help make rural Utah a safer place to invest.

• Capitalize on opportunity zones. Utah’s 19 federal opportunity zones in rural areas of the state provide a significant tax benefit and will help motivate investment in jobs and opportunities for local residents .

In addition, the World Trade Center Utah administers two important programs that can boost businesses in rural Utah. The Rural Business Development Grant program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps educate rural business people to pursue international business opportunities. Business people can attend Rural Export Boot Camps and participate in training opportunities, including one-on-one site visits.

The State Trade Expansion Program grants program, with funding from the Small Business Administration, helps rural small businesses enter and expand into dynamic global markets. Grant recipients may receive up to $10,000, with a 25% recipient cash match, for eligible international business activities.

Grant money can be used for such things as registration fees and booth space for international trade shows, travel costs, trade mission fees, shipping sample products, compliance testing, research tool subscriptions, website translation, marketing media design, export conferences and training.

More information about both programs can be found at wtcutah.com

Rural Utah small businesses can also access international markets by developing products and selling them on Amazon and other online platforms. Amazon has reported that Utah has more small- and medium-sized businesses per capita selling products on Amazon than any other state in the nation. Using Amazon, businesses in rural Utah could be selling products across the United States and to 130 other countries worldwide.

Many Utahns love the rural lifestyle, the opportunity to live in a country setting, to raise a few animals, live closer to nature and breathe clean air. More people would choose to live in Utah’s very attractive rural communities if we create business opportunities there.

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