CEDAR CITY — Focusing on the theme of resilience, several of the state’s top leaders addressed a variety of topics, including economic growth, transportation, education and the coronavirus, during the 33rd annual Utah Rural Summit hosted by Southern Utah University.
The two-day event attracted nearly 200 in-person attendees, including government, civic and business leaders from around the state. This year’s in-person attendance was limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with assigned seats, mandatory masks and other safety measures implemented.
Event organizer Stephen Lisonbee, the executive director of SUU’s Office of Regional Services, said that more people participated in this year’s event online than in person, with 15 watch parties in rural areas throughout the state, plus some 200 additional registrants watching on their own from their homes or offices.
Lisonbee addressed this anomaly during his welcoming remarks Tuesday morning.
“Whoever thought that would happen?” he asked. “I never did. In fact, 45 days ago, I didn’t know if we were going to have this event. But we knew rural Utah needed this experience. They needed to come together and be able to hear from (leaders on) important topics.”
Gov. Gary Herbert joined Lisonbee on stage Tuesday morning and spoke of economic growth opportunities for rural Utah.
Herbert said that Utah should never rest until all 29 counties and 248 cities are “having economic success and opportunity to, in fact, be a great place to live and raise children and to do business.”
At another point in the two-day conference, the governor said he believed the next 20 years will be “very exciting for rural Utah, not just as a recreation place.”
“New businesses will say, ‘I can find a better location. I can improve my bottom line and my market share by having my company in rural Utah,’” Herbert said.
The symposium’s theme of “Resilient Past, Present and Future” was highlighted throughout the conference, which is an annual event designed to give leaders from around the state an opportunity to meet and find new ways to promote rural Utah and boost its economic base.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who took the stage with his wife, Abby, talked about visiting all of Utah’s incorporated cities and towns over the past year as part of his campaign for governor. He said what makes communities resilient is “the way we help each other.”
“When someone’s down, we’re lifting them up. … We’re coming together. That’s what helps us get through the tough times.”
“It’s that sense of community,” he added, “that sense of caring, that will help us come out of this even stronger.”
Cox also spoke of the need for measured growth. Without specifying the name of the city, he mentioned a place in northern Utah where unchecked growth is outpacing the city’s ability to manage it.
“They have about six employees in the town, and they have over 1,200 homes that are in some sort of either construction or the approval process,” he said. “And they have one public works person. Now, that’s impossible for them to do it right.”
While being careful to say that he didn’t think it was the state’s role to tell communities what to do or how to grow, he said he “firmly” believed the state should provide resources to help communities grow in “the right way.”
As an example of resilience shown by Utahns recently, Cox pointed to the fierce hurricane-like storm in northern Utah in early September that toppled thousands of trees in northern part of the state. Almost immediately after the storm ended, people fired up their chainsaws and began helping cut up trees and branches as part of the cleanup efforts, he said. Ultimately, millions of pounds of much-needed firewood ended up getting delivered to people living on the state’s Native American reservations, Cox noted, thereby turning a “terrible situation” into something positive.
“We are a resilient rural Utah,” he added. “Coming out of the coronavirus crisis, we’re going to be better situated than any other state to take advantage of the lessons we’ve learned and the opportunities that will present themselves.”
After Tuesday morning’s session concluded, Southern Utah University President Scott L. Wyatt expressed similar thoughts during a short interview with Cedar City News.
“This rural summit, focusing on resilience, it’s the kind of thing we should be talking about during a pandemic,” he said. “Because we are all going to come out of this, for better or worse, and it’s up to us as to how that happens. And Southern Utah University is going to come out better. Our faculty staff, our students are going to come out stronger. And through this conference, we hope that all of the communities that we serve are going to come out stronger as well.”
During her remarks Tuesday morning, keynote speaker Carine Clark, a noted tech executive who is also chair of the governor’s economic development board, talked about taking the concept of resilience even further.
Referring to an idea from the writings of essayist Nassim Taleb, Clark said, “There’s fragile, there’s resilient – which (Taleb) calls robust – and there’s anti-fragile, because there’s no real opposite of fragile.”
Clark defined anti-fragile as a person or group benefitting from disruption.
“You’re stronger than just resilient, you’re not bouncing back to where you were, you’re bouncing back to something better,” she said, citing several examples such as athletic training, allergies and even hard boiled eggs.
“An egg and a potato … what happens when you put them in a pot of boiling water? Which is the circumstance? The egg comes out anti-fragile, right? I could have carried a hard boiled egg with me. The potato (is) super hard when you put it in. Now it’s super mushy. It’s not because they had different circumstances. It’s because of what they’re made of.”
Clark encouraged Utahns to embrace the idea of anti-fragility as they continue to face difficulties during the pandemic.
“We’re going to build an anti-fragile community, we’re going to build an anti-fragile state, we’re going to use the assets that we have to make sure that we get everyone there,” she said.
“If anyone’s suffering or struggling, we’re all going to feel it. We’re going to show what it means to have the principle of humanity as part of who we are. That because we’re anti-fragile. We can make sure that we’re kind to each other, that we don’t get sucked into the shout-out culture.”
Other featured conference speakers included Derral Eves, Logan Wilde, Dave Durocher and state Sen. Deidre Henderson. Two moderated panel discussions were held, one addressing rural economic development and the other COVID-19. Additionally, several other panels and presentations on a variety of topics are available to watch online as part of the event’s “virtual symposium” component.
Right after lunch Tuesday, seven entrepreneurs competed in the second annual State Bank of Southern Utah Speed Pitch competition. Each had 90 seconds to make their case, followed by three minutes of Q&A time from the panel of judges, including Herbert and other top leaders.
The winner of the competition was SUU senior Kiana Stoker, who creates and sells handmade accessories for bags and homes. Her company, Reece and Co. is already reportedly grossing $100,000 per year. She also won both the Governor’s Choice Award and the Audience Choice Award.
Despite the impact of COVID-19, organizers called the summit “the most successful one to date.”
“When we do have adversity, we rise to the occasion and we unite together and work through that,” Lisonbee said. “We’re in a very unique time right now in rural Utah, when that resiliency is all the more important, and we’re responding in a very fast way with a sense of toughness and rigor.”
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