Friday , February 02, 2018 - 5:00 AM
OGDEN — Some preliminary figures are in as Weber County officials delve more deeply into economic development.
Promoting the pro-business attributes of the county and changing attitudes of those with negative or mixed perceptions of the economic environment here will be key in spurring growth, says an Economic Development Corp. of Utah official.
“We need to help businesses within Weber County understand — this is a pro-business environment,” Matt Hilburn, the EDCUtah vice president of research and marketing, told Weber County commissioners this week.
An EDCUtah survey of business operators here found 34 percent of respondents were conflicted in their willingness to promote Weber County as a place to do business. If local boosters can nudge that number up, increasing upon the 38 percent of respondents who are already sold on the area’s economic potential, “your ability to attract businesses to the community expands exponentially,” Hilburn said.
County commissioners sought the study by EDCUtah, a private nonprofit based in Salt Lake City that promotes economic growth, as they investigate how to bolster the area’s fortunes via job growth, community development and more.
The process started in earnest about a year ago, Holin Wilbanks, the county’s economic development project and communications coordinator, said on introducing Hilburn at the meeting of county commissioners last Tuesday. The EDCUtah report and other data that are yet to come in, she continued, will help “grow the county in a really smart and great way.”
County Commissioner James Ebert, who’s helped spearhead the focus, said Weber County’s future, to an extent, is at stake. Utah County, where Provo is located, has been rapidly expanding, he said after Tuesday’s meeting. And if Weber County leaders and officials don’t increase their focus on spurring development, “we will be left behind.”
Commissioner Kerry Gibson, reacting to the EDCUtah report, said self-evaluation is a good thing. “I think this is tremendously helpful because, in order to make good progress, I think we need to know what we’re doing well, what we can do a little better,” he said.
Still, the new county focus has generated controversy at times.
County officials have spent $456,000 in recent years on contracts for public relations services and economic development ventures, prompting questions from some. Earlier in January, Douglas Larsen stepped down as director of the Weber Economic Development Partnership, a county entity, stemming from what he said was a lack of “synergy and alignment” with the county’s revamped approach.
What specific actions result from the EDCUtah report and other data that are yet to come in — policy changes, marketing efforts or something else — remain to be seen. But Wilbanks said Tuesday’s report will help county officials craft a more specific strategy to spur economic growth, on top of the county’s increased outreach to area businesses that is already occurring.
Hilburn told officials Weber County is in a strong place, and that it doesn’t always have to lose out to Utah County on new business growth.
Many out-of-state firms typically look first to Salt Lake County when mulling a move to Utah and then, after learning how expensive it is to operate there, turn their attention to Utah and Weber counties. The two counties, “to a business looking to move to Utah, are almost the same,” Hilburn said.
If the labor and economic attributes of Weber County and neighboring Davis County are combined, the unified area becomes an even stronger draw. “So there’s no reason why Utah County should be winning more than Weber County,” he said.
EDCUtah sent surveys to 4,872 Weber County businesses, getting responses from 1,153 of them.
Among other takeaways, availability of affordable real estate is a key concern for local business operators. Lack of a skilled labor pool, too, is a concern.
“That’s not a surprise,” Hilburn said, noting low unemployment all across Utah. “This is not necessarily something you can do a lot about. It’s a national problem.”
In drawing workers, he noted the importance of outdoor recreation and arts and entertainment. Fostering local arts and cultural offerings has been another prong of county leaders’ efforts to promote development.
EDCUtah completed the study as part of its existing relationship with the county, without requiring extra funding from county coffers, according to Wilbanks and Hilburn.
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