Opinion: How to give Utah’s economy a “rural renaissance”

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While regular attention is paid to Utah’s cityscapes, including the recent recognition of three of the country’s top 10 economic metropolitan areas, the state has a lot to offer with its rural opportunities and talents. This talent is already on display with our new Governor born and raised in Sanpete County, but that’s just 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 was an opportunity to defend remote work. Employers at the Wasatch front can take advantage of this trend by identifying jobs that can be filled by skilled labor in rural Utah. The aim is simply to connect job seekers who wish to stay in their local community with employers who offer remote work. This trend towards a distributed workforce needs to be accelerated through proactive facilitation. If successful, the benefits will cover the entire state with improvements in work, housing and education.

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

Eves’ experience is possible, in part, thanks to high-speed internet access, but 22% of the population of Utah currently does not have that access. This means that nearly 32,000 Utahns do not have the opportunity to start an online business or develop their skills through online learning. Allowing every Utahn to live where they want and pursue the career they want will require a digital connectivity approach to how President Dwight D. Eisenhower connected the United States to the interstate highway system. We need a digital highway to every corner of Utah as a top priority.

Making employment easier in rural Utah through remote work is just the start. We also need to recognize that incentive structures were created over many decades for living and working in Utah’s urban corridor, and now we need to take deliberate steps to create equally effective incentive structures to encourage rural economic growth. Going forward with economic development projects, including the internal port network, is an important way to build these incentive structures that will support the growth of rural employment.

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

The appointment of Stephen Lisonbee as rural adviser to the governor is an important step. In any successful business, someone has to take the helm. A vision and a plan are also needed. It begins with the completion of a prospective study that will define a vision for rural Utah communities. We can bridge the digital divide, deliver skills upgrading, accelerate remote working and incentivize workforce redistribution, but until we define a big vision, current challenges and obstacles will persist.

Our state has unique strengths and we must defend its beauty, traditions, heritage and cultural blend to foster a true rural renaissance that matches the beauty and potential of the state. Geographic diversification is as much a key element of the new economy as the diversification of resources and production. In these areas, Utah is poised to take the lead.

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


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