BRIGHAM CITY -- Mitch Zundel hates to see empty buildings.
Like Tremonton's former La-Z-Boy plant, which in 2005 shifted its manufacturing operations to Mexico, leaving 630 residents of northern Utah out of a job.
Or the last few years' layoffs at Corinne's ATK. "ATK has some empty buildings," he says.
As Box Elder County's new director of economic development, that's his main responsibility: filling buildings. And jobs.
Two projects on the horizon may do that; one is a still-unannounced, almost secretive, endeavor called Project Cogburn that Zundel said would bring 500 jobs to the county. The other is a $3 million expansion of an existing business that is expected to add about 15 jobs.
Just think, he adds, if each of the 1,200 registered businesses now in the county were to add one position each, "what a difference that would make."
Zundel, a Willard native and resident, stepped into the position of economic development chief in early March. Kevin Hamilton, the county's community development director, had been filling the role since the retirement of Susan Thackeray last year. Now, it's Zundel's job to be the primary cheerleader for Box Elder County as a destination for business.
Project Cogburn is "where our energies are focused," said Zundel. The project, which "is close to being announced," is expected to offer 500 start-up positions. There'll be three newly constructed sites -- two in the county and one in Brigham City. The company's plans are in a "manufacturing vein," he said. "We're still working on incentive possibilities, both locally and with the state."
Zundel views his other primary responsibility as keeping the doors open to existing businesses. Box Elder County's five largest employers are: ATK with more than 2,000 employees; Autoliv and the Box Elder School District each with more than 1,000 employees, Corinne's Wal-Mart distribution center and West Liberty Foods, a turkey processing plant in Tremonton, each with between 500 and 1,000 employees.
Among the other larger employers are Nucor Steel and Building Systems, Vulcraft and Malt-O-Meal Co.
It's enough to keep what Zundel believes to be the majority of Box Elder residents working in the county. "My guess is we have a higher number of people working here than commute out." Most of them work in small- to mid-sized companies.
He hopes to be able to see many of the thousands of people once employed at ATK stay put in Box Elder, maybe starting their own businesses. "They're pure rocket scientists; that's kind of fun."
One success on that end is HyperComp Engineering, a firm started in 1996 by James Patterson. The company designs tanks made of non-combustable materials for natural gas and hydrogen -- or, as Zundel puts it, "tanks that will take an impact without an explosion." The company last month announced a partnership with 3M and Chesapeake Energy Corporation for the design, manufacture and marketing of compressed natural gas tanks for larger transportation vehicles.
Zundel ticks off the advantages Box Elder shows to business: Lots of land; some water; educational hubs such as USU-Brigham City and the Bridgerland Applied Technology College; an airport that can handle jets in size up to a 737; and a proposed FrontRunner stop in Brigham City, by 2015 or later.
But foremost is "an educated, well-skilled workforce. And we have a workforce that's available to start working today," he said. "That's unfortunate, but at same time it's a plus."
It's that available workforce that worries Tremonton business owner DeLoy Mecham. As head of DMC Heating & Air Conditioning, he receives an average of a call a day from people seeking work. During this interview, he's working at a truck stop outside Wendover because "You can't make any money in Box Elder."
His company maintains the now-closed La-Z-Boy plant, and he shows it to potential buyers. The factory, he says, "is in as good a condition now as the day they left. We have to keep it up, so if somebody takes it over, it'll ready to go."
Mecham estimates the number of "good, solid" leads who've toured the plant at about six in the last two years. Last week, a smaller Texas-based company took a walk-through.
"We're trying to steer to get as big a company as possible in there," he said. "I want a company that could create a thousand jobs; the idea is to create as many jobs as possible."
The 34-year-old Zundel, who lives in the Willard home his grandmother once owned, has a bachelor's degree in business information systems and an MBA from Utah State University. He's worked as a real estate agent and a Willard City planner, a job he left when he was elected to the Willard City Council in 2008.
Then he went to work for Flying J in supply management. He lost that job when Flying J merged with Pilot Travel Centers in 2010. Late last year, he began an online business called ZRunning, which sells running shoes.
His history makes him sensitive to the plight of laid-off workers, as well as entrepreneurs. He started a Box Elder chapter of the Kaysville-based Entrepreneur Launch Pad "to try to help people laid off from ATK to grow businesses locally."
Since it began over a year ago, more than 100 people have attended to network and to share their ideas. With a strict non-disclosure policy in place, the Launch Pad provides a safe place for entrepreneurs to try out ideas, Zundel said. "It's a good forum for someone who's just looking at throwing an idea past people."
Another resource Zundel promotes is the Business Resource Center, a joint venture between the county, USU and the federal Small Business Development Center. The organization offers free business consulting, including writing business and marketing plans.
Zundel will work with business and government people from all Box Elder communities.