Where Urban and Rural Meet

Originally published in Utah Business.

Some time ago I was taught the golden rule about rural Utah. It went something like this: “Once you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community.” The statement speaks to the uniqueness of Utah’s cities and towns and their separate challenges—large and small, rich and poor, accessible and remote.

As much as I appreciate the wisdom of this rule, I challenge the notion that every community is separate and facing an independent future. Significant diversity exists in Utah. Provo is very different from Panguitch. Murray is different from Minersville. But even though the challenges are different, urban and rural Utah are deeply connected, and our futures are intertwined.

My thesis works like this: Utah is a state with tremendous promise. It stands at the center of the new American West—the fastest growing, youngest and most beautiful part of this incredible country. Utah has stellar leadership, wonderful people, rich natural resources, superb infrastructure and a spectacular natural environment. All of us are rightly proud to call Utah home. But underneath this enormous potential, we have a problem. It’s an insidious problem that left unchecked will starve us of our potential. The problem that I speak of is the problem of division…the ever-present temptation to divide into groups and ultimately create extremes. Once divided, the gap grows, contention sets in, walls are built, positions are fortified and division begins to take root.

In the public square we see the division between urban and rural Utah in which highways are funded, which institutions of higher learning get new buildings, how we address immigration reform, how we preserve our wild lands, and who gets to be in charge on Capitol Hill. There is an old, out-of-date saying, “When GM coughs, America catches a cold.” A more accurate statement is that when urban Utah coughs, rural Utah catches a cold. The converse is also true. The simple fact is that we all have a stake in the success of all regions of the state. We are economically, socially, historically, culturally and geographically related.

So what are the economic policy implications of a divided instead of a unified Utah? Economists agree that our collective economic destiny depends upon how well we train our children to compete in a global economy. Urban and rural Utah both need to face the fact that our current educational achievement and investment is not where it should be. If we don’t innovate and invest we will be left behind in the economic relay race. It will take urban and rural unity to meet this challenge.

We are so fortunate to live in an energy-rich state. Every Utahn has a stake in the careful development and conservation of Utah’s energy resources. Wind, solar, geothermal, natural gas, coal, oil—you name it, we have it. And while most of it is in rural Utah, the financing, legal support, some of the ownership, state-level taxation and regulation, much of the distribution network and many of the customers are in urban Utah. Energy is the classic, codependent urban/rural issue.

And let’s not forget Utah’s tourism industry, another vital link between urban and rural Utah. All of Utah has a stake in preserving our extraordinary high mountain peaks, canyons, redrock, great western rivers and beautiful places along the way. The challenge for Utah policy makers is to recognize that urban and rural Utah share a common history and a common destiny. By working together and forging unity in our ranks we can help Utahns live more abundantly. –