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A look at 'remote Utah': Moab area rife with problems and promise.

A Look at |Remote Utah'

For as long as I can remember, the folks in northern Utah figured the Arizona border was located just south of Provo," says Lewis H. "Dude" Larsen. Larsen moved to Kanab, Utah, in 1939 and became involved in Kane County politics, as well as tourist-related businesses. Frustrated over the state's inability to recognize southern Utah, he ran for the Utah State Senate, representing a five-county district. One elected, Larsen was able to make some progress, but looking back he claims, "Little has changed over the last half century." Today Larsen owns property in Moab and Salt Lake City.

During the recent state legislative Utah Tomorrow planning sessions, rural Utahns testified about the problems and needs in rural and remote Utah. It was clearly brought to light that inequities do exist between rural Utah and the Wasatch Front, which represents only 4.4 percent of the total land in Utah. The reason is obvious. Seventy-seven percent of Utah's population is centered on the Wasatch Front, creating pressure for funds to be allocated proportionately. That leaves a quarter of Utah's population underfunded. Ironically, these people live on 95.6 percent of Utah's land - an area which accounts for a good portion of the state's revenue.

Most state and federal appropriations to local governments are alloted by population. Ironically, when rural counties hit hard times, they experience a population exodus, resulting in a reduction of funds from both state and federal sources. When assistance is most needed, communities are actually penalized by inadequate funding systems that do not consider the total scope and changing times. State and federal legislators need to re-examine the formulas by which funds are allocated to local and regional government entities.

State's Rural Utah Initiative

The state is presently doing a study on infrastructure needs in rural Utah, with a focus on the tourist-industry impact. If the results of the study are complete and reflect true conditions, the information could be used to evaluate and revise state appropriation formulas.

Several years ago, the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development took a giant stride forward to help rural Utah. A major marketing program was launched. The emphasis: "Rural Utah is ripe and ready for business!" Hundreds of inquiries poured in, and the cities such as St. George, Cedar City, Kanab, Richfield, Price, and Moab geared to take advantage of new opportunities.

While Cedar City and St. George landed a few companies, other cities and counties became painfully aware that they did not fit the "rural" mold. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, four of Utah's 29 counties are listed as metropolitan and, by industrial recruitment standards, eight might be considered rural. But what of the other 17 counties? Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of the state did not adequately meet "rural" standards and were labeled "too remote."

Remote Status - Deadly or Profitable?

Moab and Grand County officials were among the first to recognize their "remote" status. According to Robbie Swasey, president of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, "Corporate executives cringe at the word. Remote has come to mean |not financially feasible.' Citizens of southeastern Utah know that |remote' is not a dirty word. In fact, remote has the potential for becoming one of the nation's hottest commodities. Wilderness advocates are calling southeastern Utah a national treasure. We plan to protect our pristine environment, while enriching our economy, and believe that the two can be compatible."

David Knutson, Chairman of the Grand County Commission, agrees with Swasey, but brings to light the flip side of the coin. "Remote Utah has mostly state and federal land," he explains. "Counties that have the most private land are the richest, and those with the least are the poorest. Figures substantiate this fact, and Grand County has only 5.4 percent private property."

Knutson tells how mineral extraction was responsible for giving Grand County its prior economic foundation. "Beginning in 1952, Grand's gross taxable receipts climbed upward to top out at $80 million in 1981. When the uranium industry took a dive in 1983, so did the county's gross taxable receipts, dropping to only $55 million in 1985."

The commissioner emphasizes that counties must have control over land use within their jurisdiction, or risk economic collapse. "Some of the wilderness bills being considered by Congress could devastate counties such as Kane, Garfield, San Juan, and Emery. We need the people upstate and in Washington to better understand our problems," he says.

Grand - A County in Transition

In 1983, Grand County's unemployment soared to 19.5 percent. Citizens of Moab, the county seat, are known for their stay-power through a roller-coaster economy. When the bottom dropped out of the uranium market, the community rallied, as one citizen put it, "to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps one more time."

A town meeting was called to determine the community's future. Moabites had the foresight to see the value in a previously untapped resource - the unique and awesome scenery. During the mining days, Grand County boasted one of the state's highest per capita incomes. Financially comfortable, locals kept their canyon playground a secret. But with the new economic low, it was time to share it with others.

A long-range recovery plan was put in motion. The No. 1 goal was to develop a new image for Moab - the "mining town" reputation was out. Establishing an international identity for the city, with its surrounding state and national parks, also became a top priority.

The need to diversify the economy was a critical issue. The recovery plan targeted light industry, which was compatible with the environment. And Grand became one of the first counties to receive an Enterprise Zone designation, allowing tax benefits for manufacturing businesses. The town of Green River was selected as the ideal location for a new industrial-residential park.

Transportation in remote areas is often preconceived as a major problem for manufacturing. But James Parry, owner of Moab's Hercules Saddle Tree Co., says shipping and receiving goods is no problem. "Even though Moab is remote, we still have good transportation in and out of the area," he observes. He notes that of his nine years in business, this has been his best to date.

Moab kicked off its promotional campaign with the "World's Most Scenic Dump" contest. The unique idea made headlines around the world. Charles Kuralt did a five-minute television special on Moab and its scenic dump and visitors rerouted their vacations to come and see the attraction. News coverage continued for the next 16 months. Not a bad publicity stunt for a small town with no marketing money.

Moab - A City on the Move

Evidenced by the increase in visitors to the area, averaging from 15 to 20 percent annually, the image and identity goals are being met with great success. As one person oberved, "While shopping in downtown Moab, it's hard to remember what country you're in; people are speaking so many different languages."

A Moab area promotion committee selected Delicate Arch, the world's only free-standing arch, as its trademark. Delicate Arch, which can be found in Arches National Park four miles north of Moab, will soon be seen on Utah's new license plates.

Moab will literally become a footprint around the world, since Nike Shoes put the phonic spelling "Mowabb" on the soles of a new sports shoe. Nike CEOs acknowledge that it was Moab (Utah) they had in mind, having filmed several commercials and ad campaigns at some of Moab's most popular film locations. The Moab Film Commission has attracted the film industry to southeastern Utah for over four decades, adding to Moab's diversity.

Other success stories include the Groff family, mostly unemployed miners, who opened Rim Cyclery (see the July issue, p. 57) put the famous Slick Rock Bike Trail on the map, and helped make Moab the mountain bike capital of the nation. Tour operations are on a steady increase, as running the Colorado River is becoming even more popular. This year, Moab hosted over 4,500 participants during the 25th Annual Easter Jeep Safari.

Is Tourism the Answer?

"Visitor trade helps bridge the economic gap while we are struggling to recover," says Commissioner Knutson. "But our tax base is still down almost one-third. Our population dropped from 8,241 (1980 Census) to 6,620 (1990 census). Yet with the increase in visitor trade, our transient population is double and sometimes tripple that amount. This places a heavy demand on our infrastructure and services," Knutson stresses.

Rural counties contribute significant revenue to the state by way of the mineral lease money, transient room tax, sales tax, employment tax, state-assessed property, state land sales, and lease collection processes. "We are working with other county commissioners to convince the governor and state legislators that we need a fair share return," Knutson comments.

To reinforce Knutson's claim, Moab Mayor Tom Stocks points out, "Of the 6 percent sales tax collected by the city, Moab received less than 1 percent back from the state. We recently added to the city's gross business license, bringing the total state sales tax and gross business license fees to 8 percent, but still receive less than 2 percent back."

"If the state will not adequately address our problems," says Knutson, "we would like to see an increase in funds allocated to local governments so we can better deal with our own affairs." He clarifies that this includes education, medical, transportation, and other vital services for the future of rural and remote Utah.

According to the 1990 Census, Moab is the "no. 1 slowest-growing city in the state." This stigma, along with a shortage of capital, has made recovery a much tougher ball game. Joe Kingsley, a local real estate agent, has this to say: "Since Utah's economy took a dive in the 1980s, financial institutions have red-lined Moab and other rural towns. It's sad when life-time residents must go elsewhere to do business. As the economy continues to improve, so will available financing. But we need capital now."

A Look to the Future

Grand County is presently perched on the brink of a possible oil boom, which would guarantee full recovery of the tax base and promises to send the economic roller coaster rocketing upward another round. The new horizontal drilling technique used by Columbia Gas in the Big Flats area (near Dead Horse Point State Park) has opened doors that some residents believed were closed forever. But as Commissioner Knutson cautions, "One oil well does not an oil boom make."

"Seven years into the recovery process, things are right on target," confirms the county's only woman commissioner, Sam Cunningham. "The empty houses are nearly filled, building permits are on the upward swing, and the unemployment figure is down. We have managed some public improvements by utilizing state and federal grants."

Cunningham, assigned to oversee the county's economic and community development operation, reveals that grant programs became an excellent means to keep Moab from becoming another ghost town. "Mineral lease money from the Community Impact Board is the source for most of our grant projects. The construction activity for our 18-hole golf course, Old Spanish Trail Arena, and for upgrading our infrastructure has given the appearance of a town a little less down on its luck," she says.

Last year, over 600,000 people visited Arches National Park. The Grand County Travel Council and Moab Chamber of Commerce are working to develop a year-round tourist business by promoting cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and other winter activities.

How does the state's slowest-growing city become Utah's hot spot for the future? Grand County Commissioner Manuyal Torres puts it this way: "You take the best of the Colorado Plateau's natural resources - including scenery, add people power, and you have it." According to Torres, it's Moab's dedicated, durable, and resourceful volunteers have kept Moab on the move. "These same types of people make up Grand County's excellent work force" he says.

Three new motels and a destination hotel are scheduled to break ground in Moab before spring of 1992. "The business and investment opportunities abound," claims Chamber President Swasey. "Moab has become more cosmopolitan than most Utah towns. It now has one of Utah's three brewpub restaurants and the state's only commercial winery. With our prosperous tourist trade and prospects of an oil boom, the time is right and we are ready. Moab will be a Mecca of the nineties," she concludes.

Not to dampen Chamber optimism, but a few dark clouds are looming over Mecca. If the county is to continue an adequate level of services for its citizens and deal with the impact of the rising transient population, an increase in revenue is essential. And the fact that Grand County contains only 5.4 percent private land could present problems.

State school trust lands make up 16 percent of the county's acreage. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, in conjunction with the Utah Professional Archaeological Council of Utah, recently filed suit against the Division of State Lands and Forestry, challenging its right to sell trust lands without first preparing a general management plan and conducting a cultural resource evaluation. As a result, state land officials have put a hold on trust land sales until the matter is resolved. Federal multiple-use land, which accounts for 78 percent of the county's acreage, is also subject to further lock up as Congress considers more wilderness designation.

As the storm rages over public land use in southeastern Utah, a few of the old Sagebrush Rebellion gang assure us that Utah's economy will not be washed away by "environmental extremists." We are reminded that "after the storm, comes sunshine." And "Mecca" offers plenty of sunshine for the future.

PHOTO : Mayor Tom Stocks stands at the gateway to Moab and Utah's scenic Arches National Park.

PHOTO : One of Moab's citizens capturing nature on film.

Bette L. Stanton is executive director of Grand County Economic and Community Development and the Moab Film Commission.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Olympus Publishing Co.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stanton, Bette L.
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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