Gov. Gary Herbert is often heard praising Utah’s economic numbers as a reflection of the state’s industrious citizenry and his office’s business-friendly attitudes.
Statewide, it’s true that the unemployment rate is more than a percentage point lower than the national average—3.2 percent compared vs. 4.3 percent countrywide, according to the Department of Workforce Services’ latest report.
But single out individual counties, and the numbers aren’t as rosy. Nine counties in the eastern third of the state have an unemployment rate that tops 5 percent. And the southern corner—San Juan, Garfield and Wayne—all have unemployment over 7 percent, with the latter reaching nearly 8.
Adus F. Dorsey II, a former mayor of Torrey, has been employed as the Wayne County director of economic development for about 18 months in the county seat of Loa. “We have our challenges, and a lot of it has to do with where we’re situated in the state and our access to transportation corridors,” he says.
Wayne is untouched by the state’s major interstate arteries, 15 and 70. This, Dorsey explains, is a tremendous obstacle in exporting goods, such as alfalfa, the area’s major crop. Capitol Reef National Park runs through the county and draws tourists and their dollars into its communities, but most of the work is seasonal and lower-paying service oriented jobs. When the Aspen Achievement Academy—an outdoor youth treatment center—relocated north in 2011, the county took another hit. By the end of that year, Wayne County’s unemployment rate had spiked to more than 11 percent, though it has since lowered.
“Even five jobs can make a difference down here,” Dorsey says, of a county that tops 2,500 in population.
For its part, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development is working to inject the workforce in 25 rural counties with 25,000 jobs over the next four years. Herbert said in a statement last week that he “will not rest until all 29 counties experience the same economic success.” Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, resident of a small town, began travel on Monday with stops in Box Elder and Cache counties. The tour will continue throughout the next three months.
The plan is to provide resources to rural communities for economic growth.
Dorsey, who has been working closely with the state’s economic development department, is hopeful—though he acknowledges no plan comes with a guarantee.
“There’s always going to be things that need to be worked out,” he says. “But this is a pretty good-sized initiative.”