OGDEN — As leaders from Weber and Davis counties push ahead with a joint initiative to spur growth, Weber State University has hired an economic development director, aiming also to bolster the northern Utah economy.
That Salt Lake and Utah counties seem to be developing at a faster clip is cause for regular handwringing among northern Utah leaders. Now, officials here are ratcheting up efforts to draw in new industry and encourage growth among existing businesses.
But Guy Letendre, the new WSU director of economic development, said it goes beyond numbers of jobs created. Hand-in-hand with that, the boosters involved “want the qualify of life to grow,” he said, because that, too, is key in helping an economy grow.
Davis County Commissioner James Smith, who’s been involved in efforts to create a new economic development entity with Weber County, said it’s about positioning northern Utah as a unified bloc, allowing the region to better compete in luring business. Officials from Box Elder and Cache counties are closely watching the efforts of Weber and Davis counties, he said, potentially interested in getting involved.
“The idea is to market northern Utah as a complete package rather than have our counties competing with each other,” Smith said. “Because we’re grouped close to each other, it makes sense for us to combine rather than compete.”
When trying to reel in a business lead, for instance, one proposal from the area with several options reflecting plans put forward by individual northern Utah communities is better than several disparate proposals from the zone. “It looks like we’re fractured when we have six different applications,” he said.
Holin Wilbanks, Weber County’s economic development director, said the joint Weber County-Davis County initiative could come together yet this year. As she and Smith described it, an economic development official serving both counties and answering to officials in each would spearhead the effort.
“The two county commissions have agreed this is a smart way to grow northern Utah,” Wilbanks said, noting support from state lawmakers as well. “Now it’s just a matter of really defining and putting it into motion.”
The joint economic development initiative was a focus at an April meeting of the Weber County Commission, attended by Theresa Foxley, president of the private, nonprofit Economic Development Corp. of Utah, and Smith. Beyond that, per House Bill 2, state lawmakers earlier this year earmarked $775,000 for the northern Utah initiative, to be funneled through the Governor’s Office on Economic Development.
Wilbanks said the proposed economic development official would pursue business development leads, inventory available land for business growth and keep tabs on incentives offered by area locales. Even so, the job description of the two-county economic development official is still being fine tuned and many other details still must be worked out.
WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT, QUALITY OF LIFE
Letendre started as WSU’s director of economic development last month. The university had been involved in varied economic development initiatives, but they were scattered around the campus and the aim with Letendre’s hiring is to centralize the efforts, better publicize them.
“I think the school wanted to create a more active and a more recognizable influence on the regional economic activity,” he said. Letendre helped develop airbag inflation devices early in his career as an engineer with Autoliv, which makes safety devices for cars, and subsequently worked in administration and consulting with biotech and transportation companies.
Workforce development, that is, making sure Weber County has a supply of workers with the skills that local employers need, will figure big in what Letendre does, working with local business. Demand for qualified workers in various sectors is strong.
But helping bolster the quality of life here and better communicating the attributes of off-the-clock life in Weber County are also important. With the array of cultural and artistic offerings at Weber State, Letendre sees such promotion as another aspect of his duties. To draw “the best and the brightest” to northern Utah and keep them here, “we need a nice place to live,” he said.
Teaming with other officials involved in economic development — from cities in Davis and Weber counties, the two counties and area chambers of commerce — will also be key. What’s more, Letendre will work to accelerate business development and get research ideas developed at Weber State to market.
Brad Mortensen, vice president of university advancement for Weber State, spearheaded creation of Letendre’s position, consulting with local leaders and economic development officials from around Weber and Davis counties. He sees Letendre as serving, in part, as a liaison.
“We realized that we need to play a more active and engaged role with the private sector, with local government, with state government in this role of economic development,” he said.