Originally published in Utah Business.
Utah’s Carbon and Emery counties possess immense beauty between the slot canyons of the San Rafael Swell, the rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, beautiful pasturelands, and a historic rail town. However, beautiful scenery isn’t all these counties have to offer; the regions also possess vast coal reserves and a rich history of coal mining.
More than half of Utah’s coal production occurs in these two counties, but production has declined by 47 percent since its peak in 2001. In fact, the area suffers from a near decade-long recession and is now among the most economically disadvantaged regions in the state.
Residents face high unemployment and high poverty rates (particularly among children), and one of the highest prescription opioid dispensing rates in the nation. But that’s not the worst part, analysts forecast the economy in Utah’s Coal Country will continue to shrink as carbon emission constraints intensify in a widespread effort to combat climate change.
The contrast between Utah’s nation-leading economy and the struggles faced by people in central Utah is not lost on me. The contrast is even more pronounced when you compare Utah’s coal country, headquartered in Price City, with the Silicon Slopes economy, headquartered in Lehi City, just 90 minutes away. Approximately 40 percent of Utah’s job creation since 2010 has been along the 25-mile stretch from Midvale to Pleasant Grove.
It begs the question, what can be done to share the wealth in this state?
HOW CAN POLICY HELP COAL REGIONS?
Fortunately, there is good news for Carbon and Emery counties. Thanks to the University of Utah and Schmidt Economic Futures (yes, that’s Eric Schmidt of Google), Utah’s coal country will be receiving increased attention through the American Dream Ideas Challenge―a competition to help the middle class. A Utah Coal Country Strike Team has been assembled to consider how public policy innovations can help this region of the state. The Strike Team includes representatives from three Utah universities, the governor’s office, two mayors, Silicon Slopes, two local school districts, and local community experts.
The Strike Team plans to roll up their sleeves and consider public policies that will raise incomes in the area. They aim to achieve a 10 percent increase in net income for 10,000 households by 2020. A meaningful change like this will require a multi-factor public policy approach. Among the factors the Strike Team hopes to influence are the following:
CREATE REMOTE WORKSITES
Work with Silicon Slopes, Utah State University Eastern, Carbon and Emery County School Districts, and other partners to train the workforce and attract employment opportunities for remote worksites, software development, and other tech-oriented opportunities. This policy innovation will be significantly advanced by Carbon and Emery counties’ stellar fiber connectivity. Nearly 100 percent of Carbon County’s population and 96 percent of Emery County’s population are covered by wireless broadband of up to 30 mbps download/3 mbps upload speeds.
CREATE A TOURISM INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT FUND
Work with the governor’s office and Utah Legislature to create a state-level tourism infrastructure investment fund. The fund will help Utah’s coal country invest in transportation infrastructure (such as airports and regional airstrips), Main Street revitalization for storefronts, wayfinding, hazard mitigation for flash floods and fire, visitor centers, and other recreation and visitor assets. This investment will maximize benefits from the region’s outstanding historical and natural attractions such as the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon, Price River, the historic town of Helper, and other attractions.
REVITALIZE HOUSING STOCK
Identify and secure housing assistance funds from state and federal agencies to revitalize the local housing stock and increase household wealth. Carbon and Emery counties have two of the oldest housing inventories in the state. The median sales price of a home in both counties has fallen by about 10 percent since 2010 and these declining values are eroding the wealth and economic well-being of local households.
Perhaps the most impactful benefit of the Strike Team will be a more prosperous economy leading to less opioid abuse. According to the Center for Disease Control, Carbon County is one of four Utah counties with more retail opioid prescriptions than people. It’s time for a prosperous state to take purposeful steps to help Carbon and Emery county regain their economic success.