OGDEN — Thanks to the federal CARES Act, some $44.87 million has been pumped into Weber County, aimed at helping more than 900 entities — businesses, schools, nonprofit groups — weather the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will the grant funding be enough to keep them all on stable footing? Probably not, says Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer, who’s been involved in efforts to distribute the funds. “It doesn’t solve everything,” he said.
Still, there are signs of hope for the local economy, beyond the impact of the grant money. Notably, in a report released Wednesday by the Milken Institute, the Ogden-Clearfield area ranked as the ninth best-performing large urban area in the country in terms of growth in jobs, wages and the high-tech sector. Provo-Orem topped the list while Salt Lake City ranked fourth.
Since March of last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold in the country, the soft state of the economy has been a big focus of local leaders, as it has for officials at the national level. CARES Act money has been one of the key resources to help businesses and other entities hit by the downturn, and Weber County Treasurer John Bond last week finished an accounting of the funding, offering a glimpse into how it’s been divvied.
All told, according to Bond’s figures, Weber County and the county’s 15 cities received $44.87 million in grant funds between them thanks to the federal initiative. As of the end of December, the recipients of the money had been pinpointed. More on that further down.
At any rate, the funding doesn’t necessarily spur recovery by itself. Officials are offering mixed views on the state of the local economy and local businesses, some still sluggish as people limit their movements to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
Froerer, for his part, says the CARES Act funding has kept some businesses afloat. It was meant to help companies that had to close due to the pandemic or were otherwise adversely impacted due to the resulting economic downturn. Hospitals, schools and other nonprofit entities hit were also able to tap into funding.
“We were able to save a number of small businesses from going out of business,” Froerer said. “That’s exactly what they told us, ‘Without these funds, we would have shut our doors.’”
However, Tom Christopulos, Ogden’s director of community and economic development, is a bit more circumspect. It’s not that the funding hasn’t helped. He just thinks that some of Ogden’s smallest businesses were hit too hard and likely won’t survive the economic fallout of COVID-19, such aid notwithstanding. “We’re still worried about the very small businesses. They’ve lost quite a lot of money,” he said.
Likewise, he’s not making any predictions on the sort of impact he thinks the money may have when the dust settles. “This is a tough one to measure, forecast what it will do,” Christopulos said.
On the bright side, the unemployment rate in Weber County as of December, the latest figure available, measured 4.6%. That’s the lowest since the 10.7% high last April after the start of the pandemic, according to Utah Department of Workforce Services figures. Utah’s overall rate, 3.6%, is also the lowest since the high of 10.4% last April.
The report from the Milken Insitute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, also offers room for encouragement in the economic sphere. Its annual Best-Performing Cities study is a measure of the economic strength of the country’s urban centers, and the Ogden-Clearfield area’s ninth-place ranking, ahead of Hunstville, Alabama, and behind the Nashville, Tennesee, metro area, reflects a jump from 22nd place last year.
The Ogden-Clearfield area encompasses Weber, Davis, Morgan and Box Elder counties, and the Milken Institute report singled out improvements in job and wage growth in the zone. It also cited the impact of Hill Air Force Base.
“Hill Air Force Base is an economic stabilizer, providing over 25,000 jobs with a payroll of almost $1.5 billion, and it pumps hundreds of millions more into the economy in construction and service contracts. The defense technology industry is a key driver in Ogden-Clearfield’s economy, as the Air Force supports innovation in the field,” reads the report.
The report singled out the educated workforce owing to the many universities along the Wasatch Front, including Weber State University, and also cited the City of Ogden’s Make Ogden initiative to create more housing and new jobs.
813 BUSINESSES AIDEDAs for the CARES Act money, $15.78 million of the $44.87 million went to 813 small businesses. Weber County and the cities tapped $14.89 million for their own COVID-19 relief needs while 19 school districts or schools shared $6.28 million.
Some $5.74 million was shared among 69 nonprofit groups, and hospitals received $1.2 million.
Looking ahead, the new federal stimulus plan U.S. lawmakers approved late last year doesn’t offer such clear-cut funding streams for businesses and other entities still suffering because of the pandemic, Froerer said. The terms are different, he said, and businesses seeking help must apply through the U.S. Small Business Administration or their lending company.