ST. GEORGE – The 16th annual “What’s Up Down South” Washington County Economic Summit took place at the Dixie Center Wednesday and showcased the economic growth of the area.
Areas of Washington County have been growing economically and are projected to continue growing in the coming year.
“It’s good to see our housing market picking up and homes being built with that part of the economy going,” Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said. “I think that’ll be key to us.”
He also said Washington County had potential in the tech industry, and that technology-based businesses in the county were showing great promise. “I think (these businesses) offer some great possibilities,” he said. “I’d like to see more focus that way.”
Ed Bowler, of Southern Utah Title, said there had been over 1,100 building permits issued in 2012, which was a noticeable rise over the nearly 800 issued in 2011. “We’re coming out of a down cycle,” he said.
Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council, said the growth of the tech industry in the county had been tremendous.
“There’s been huge growth,” Hirschi said. “In our own way – we’re not a Utah County – but in our own way, we have a robust tech industry here. And it’s heading straight up.”
Hirschi added some of the tech companies in the county have a national or even international presence. The presence of these established companies in the region tends to draw other companies, acting like a kind of magnet to those that are receptive.
As for St. George, Mayor Dan McArthur said the economic output for the city in the coming year looks a lot better than it has in the past. “Our building permits are up;” he said, “home sales are up, foreclosures are down; businesses are coming.”
People are interested in the area, McArthur said. People are approaching the economic development council now, whereas a couple years ago “we couldn’t find anyone who was really moving or expanding.”
Businesses are expanding in Washington County. These include custom car and component builders SKJ Customs and Speed Tech Performance, as well as telecommunications companies CaptionCall, which has employed 450 in one year, and AllConnect, which employs 250 curently, and Contact Point, Log My Calls.
Jobs will also be created in the coming year by businesses building new facilities in Washington County, such as the Family Dollar distribution center in St. George, and the GAF manufacturing facility being built in Cedar City and Warner Truck Center in Hurricane which will develop over 30 acres in time.
Also being built, and currently 70 percent complete, is the Utah State Veterans Nursing Home in Ivins. Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said the nursing home would employ a staff of 150 after its completion in mid-May.
Nearby Mesquite, Nev., is growing also. Its city manager, Andy Barton, said that in addition to the casinos, its largest employers, its recreation venues are growing – seven golf courses among them and a developing sports event complex.
Why Washington County?
So what exactly brings companies to Washington County?
“It varies from company to company; they’re looking for different things,” Hirschi said. “The one universal element you’ll find in 99 percent of them is labor force. They’re looking for an educated, motivated, productive, reliable workforce.”
He added that another reason is logistics, especially if an incoming company, like Family Dollar for example, plans to build a distribution center. Such a company’s main focus would be on determining the best location for a distribution hub that allows for quick and effective shipment of product.
Janet Wilson, a spokeswoman for Family Dollar, said the company came to St. George because it provides “a great location … it’s just a good place to be.”
She also said the area has a good workforce to pick from, as well as a good infrastructure. The Family Dollar distribution center is slated to employe 350 people. It is currently accepting applications online.
AllConnect is another that established in St. George for its workforce. Chief Administrative Officer Dan King said that when the company was looking to grow beyond its sales center in Atlanta which it outgrew in 2005, it searched extensively before deciding on St. George. “It was not about the real estate, it was not about the golf, it was about the people,” he said. “The labor force is an amazing success.”
“Utah is a premiere destination for jobs,” Dixie State College of Utah’s president, Stephen Nadauld, said during the summit’s luncheon session. However, to maintain that status, Utahns need the proper education.
Growing and maintaining an educated workforce was one of the subjects addressed by Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, one of the summit’s keynote speakers.
“Education is not negotiable anymore,” he said.
Bell said up to 65 percent of college freshmen in Utah have to take remedial math courses. That needs to stop. He said Utah students also need to be at grade-level in math by sixth grade, and the same for reading by third grade, otherwise those students would have a hard time catching up.
He also said the majority of college and university degrees earned in Utah are geared towards the social sciences. While these are an achievement, those fields aren’t doing the majority of the hiring. Instead, applicants suitable for technology and engineering-based jobs are in high demand.
Bell told the audience to tell their children to minor in things like theater and the creative arts, while majoring in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathmatics) degrees that can lead to good, high-paying jobs.
Utah’s own economic potential was touted by Bell, who cited Utah’s being named the Best State for Business in 2012 by Forbes Magazine for a third consecutive year. It was ranked as the no. 1 pro-business state by Pollina Corporate for 2012.
He pointed out various factors leading to the state’s economic success, but said the greatest factor has been population growth. “The greatest number is that we’re growing,” he said.
Through internal growth and migration, Bell said Utah is flourishing while other states are diminishing.
While the economic forecast for Washington County and the state looks good for 2013, a wary eye is kept on the state of the national economy.
“I think that’s always a worry,” Gardner said. “We kind of have our own little area here, but we are impacted by the national economy. If you talk to some of these tech businesses, 90 percent of their business is outside Washington County. So, we are affected more and more by the whole country … a lot more than we used to be.”
Despite concerns, Washington County’s economy continues to improve.
“We feel the economy is back,” Bowler said.