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Grants seek to revitalize Utah’s coal country

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Coal from various sources is mixed for use at the Huntington power plant in Huntington, Tuesday, March 24, 2015.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two central Utah communities are getting a financial boost in an effort to strengthen local economic development.

The Utah Coal Country Strike Team recently awarded two $75,000 grants to the cities of Price and Castle Dale as part of an economic redevelopment plan. The funding will support the strike team’s primary objectives — aiding in regional economic diversification and bolstering existing residential and commercial properties through programs including downtown beautification, tourism infrastructure and other development priorities, explained Jennifer Robinson, strike team member and associate director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

The strike team is a multidisciplinary group of experts who assist with public policy advancement and investment for workforce training, tourism infrastructure, housing revitalization and economic development incentives. Together, they look for ways to support coal communities and counties by raising incomes and broadening the local economy, Robinson said.

“One of the things that we know when we have distressed regions that have been impacted by the decline in the coal industry is that those regions need to diversify their economies,” Robinson said. “We took a hard look at ways that Carbon and Emery (counties) could diversify, and we know one of the ways that they can diversify is through tourism.”

Funding support comes from the Utah Legislature and Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, which works to improve societal outcomes through the thoughtful development of emerging science and technologies.

Robinson said the strike team received $900,000 in direct and matching funding from Schmidt Futures and the University of Utah. The monies, along with $500,000 in state legislative appropriations, allowed the team to invest in areas of community concern in Carbon and Emery counties, she added.

“The idea is that when your community is suffering, you have to invest funds in the community in order to diversify the economy,” she said.

Research compiled by the strike team showed economic diversity with a tourism focus has been a successful model in other rural coal communities, according to a news release, with downtown revitalization and local arts development as a staple. However, poor infrastructure, ineffective marketing strategies and insufficient workforce training have posed barriers to successful tourism expansion in many rural communities, which the new funding will be seek to remedy, the release stated.

“With these new funds, we will keep doing the necessary work of building up Castle Dale city and creating a bright future for our citizens,” said Castle Dale Mayor Danny Van Wagoner. “Our downtown needs some help. This will be a big shot in the arm for our downtown.”

He said one of the community’s goals is to entice economic development from outside interests that see potential in places like Emery County that were once bustling coal areas.

“We have a lot of outdoor recreation to offer, and so we just want to make it appealing for people to take a second look at us and give us a second chance,” Van Wagoner said.

The strike team is also working to bring more technical training to area high schools and colleges to develop job programs offering career opportunities for young residents who typically leave after graduation due to the lack of available employment, he said.

For now, Emery and Carbon counties will be among the first beneficiaries of the strike team’s ongoing revitalization efforts.

“We greatly value this investment and will ensure its use in helping our community prosper,” said Price Mayor Mike Kourianos.