Right On: Can Southern Utah’s economy diversify?

Hands around a crystal ball. Undated. | Photos courtesy Pixabay and file photo, St. George News

OPINION — Can Southern Utah’s economy diversify beyond retirees and tourists?

Based on good news and high hopes from transportation authorities, Dixie State University and Southern Utah’s nascent tech businesses, the answer could be yes.

Most of us make a living here because retirees and tourists bring their cash to Southern Utah. Whether you work at the hospital, a construction site, a retail store or a restaurant, your job depends in no small part on this continuing flow of people from elsewhere.

Southern Utah has spectacular scenery, a great climate and a safe and comfortable lifestyle. We have several quality industrial firms – companies with higher paying jobs – but not enough of them to provide balance in our economy.

A thoughtful observer noted that our biggest export is our children. Too many are not able to find jobs here that match their talents.

I made the rounds last week to three gatherings that gave me some hope that this could change.

On my way into the Dixie Regional Transportation Expo at the St. George convention center, I passed a rack full of the city’s new bikes for rent. I have no idea whether this will turn out to be a good idea or a bad one, but it does reflect a willingness to experiment with an innovative new concept. Who knows: it might turn into a big hit.

Inside, booths provided information on everything from walking paths to Interstate 15, from the Bureau of Land Management to the St. George Airport, and cities from Ivins to Hurricane.

I remain impressed with how well a relatively smaller metropolitan area stays up with – and often ahead of – its transportation needs. Yeah, yeah, I know there’s a congested intersection near where you live or a road that needs widening or that Suntran doesn’t run when and where you need it. But spend a little time elsewhere and then count your blessings here.

Kudos to the Utah Department of Transportation, the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization and our city transportation departments who contribute to making Southern Utah an attractive place to live and do business.

Can one of Southern Utah’s businesses be technical innovation? Dixie State University thinks so.

Dixie State’s Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center looks like the real deal. It’s headed by Dr. Wayne Provost, no ivory tower academic. He holds a number of patents that in turn have been cited hundreds of times by others. He’s founded 12 different companies, made a fortune and given most of it away helping young people.

Provost is a full-time Dixie State employee but not as a professor. Instead, his only job is helping students turn their ideas into patents, copyrights and trademarks. Dozens are in process.

Provost has the full support of Dixie State’s leadership and even more important, he has developed ties with experienced business leaders like entrepreneur and Dixie State trustee Lindsay Atwood. Atwood has founded, developed and sold six companies over the last 37 years.

As this column went to press, Dixie State expects to announce a relationship with a major venture capital fund.

To me, this kind of real-world, university/business partnership could spark a flourishing local technology industry. If Dixie State fosters one or two successful startup companies, it could attract some of the region’s most promising students who in turn could lure tech companies looking for top talent.

And luring tech companies is exactly what the city of St. George’s Tech Ridge is all about.

Derek Miller, president of World Trade Center Utah, spoke last week in St. George. When Miller served as managing director of then Gov. Jon Huntsman’s Office of Economic Development, he traveled frequently to California’s Silicon Valley meeting with tech leaders. He told them he knew they would always be based in California but that when they considered expanding, look to Utah’s “Silicon Slopes.”

It worked: Utah’s Wasatch Front has an impressive number of iconic tech companies lined up along Interstate 15 from Provo to Salt Lake City.

Miller’s advice to Southern Utah follows the same script. He recommends that we tell Wasatch Front companies that they have employees who want to live and work in Southern Utah. Rather than lose them, open facilities here and grow by hiring the budding innovators from Dixie State’s Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center.

With that strategy in mind, Southern Utah tech firms have established “Silicon Slopes South,” an affiliate of the Wasatch Front’s “Silicon Slopes.”

Will it work? The city of St. George is betting the farm that it will. Or rather it’s betting the old airport site. The city is converting the vacated 155 acres into Tech Ridge, a mixed use, “live, work, play” enclave for tech companies and their employees. St. George’s Printer Logic expects to move into a new building there by May 2019 with other local tech firms like busybusy and Zonos close behind.

Experience shows that creative tech employees thrive around others of their kind. For a tech company, its most important assets go home after work each evening. Keeping them happy is job one.

Is there synergism here? Can Southern Utah bootstrap itself up into a tech hub? Time will tell but all the right folks are doing all the right things. As St. George Mayor Jon Pike says, government’s job is to get out of the way and let these folks make it happen.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • No Filter February 22, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Lets hope this new technology program is not the reason Dixie Sate is cleaning house in the music and arts program. 3 professors have been put on leave already and more to come is the word. Students are also being expelled for speaking up. Please ask questions and don’t let them hide it from the public.

  • utahdiablo February 22, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    Nope….as soon as this latest housing boom crashes and burns? ….It will be bleak city

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