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Utah’s economy needs a ‘rural renaissance’

Facilitating jobs in rural Utah through remote work is just a start

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Now-Gov. Spencer Cox walks on his family’s farmland in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The private sector, working with community leaders, can help usher in a rural renaissance for Utah and the Intermountain region, writes Derek B. Miller.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

While regular attention is paid to Utah’s cityscapes, including recent recognition of three of the top 10 economic metro areas in the country, the state has much to offer with its rural opportunity and talent. That talent is already on display with our new Sanpete County-born-and-bred governor, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. I believe the private sector, working with community leaders, can help usher in a rural renaissance for our state and the Intermountain region.

The pandemic presented an opportunity to champion remote work. Employers along the Wasatch Front can capitalize on this trend by identifying jobs that can be filled by the skilled workforce in rural Utah. The goal is simply to connect job seekers who want to stay in their local communities to employers who offer remote work. This trend toward distributed workforce needs acceleration through proactive facilitation. If successful, the benefits will cover the entire state by improvements to labor, housing and education.

One example was presented at last October’s Rural Summit at Southern Utah University. Derral Eves, a YouTuber and film producer, built a career that allows him to live in rural Utah with his family. His accomplishments catapulted him to be the executive producer of the popular TV series “The Chosen” and made it the No. 1 crowdfunded television project.

Eves’ experience is possible, in part, because of access to high-speed internet, but 22% of Utah’s population currently lacks that access. That means nearly 32,000 Utahns do not have the opportunity to start an online business or reskill through online learning. Allowing every Utahn to live wherever they want and pursue whatever career they desire will require approaching digital connectivity the way President Dwight D. Eisenhower connected the United States with the interstate highway system. We need a digital superhighway to every corner of Utah as a top priority. 

Facilitating jobs in rural Utah through remote work is just a start. We must also recognize that incentive structures have been created over many decades for living and working in Utah’s urban corridor, and we must now take deliberate actions to create equally effective incentive structures to encourage rural economic growth. Moving forward with economic development projects including the inland port network is an important way to build these incentive structures that will bolster rural job growth.  

A recent study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute showed Utah’s economy is organized into six economic regions, with regional commuting patterns and organic economic connectivity. Incentives, such as tax credits and employee benefits, to live and work in the state’s rural economic regions will advance talent development that forms the foundation for rural economic growth.  

The appointment of Stephen Lisonbee as the governor’s rural adviser is an important step. In any successful endeavor, someone needs to take the helm. A vision and plan is also required. That starts with conducting a foresight study that will set a vision for Utah’s rural communities. We can close the digital divide, offer upskilling, accelerate remote work and incentivize workforce distribution, but until we cast a big vision, current challenges and obstacles will persist. 

Our state has unique assets and we should champion its beauty, tradition, heritage and cultural mix to foster a true rural renaissance that matches the state’s beauty and potential. Geographic diversification is as much a key component of the new economy as resource and production diversification. In these, Utah is poised to lead. 

Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.