CEDAR CITY — Although 2020 has been a challenging year, officials say Iron County’s economy has weathered the storm better than many other areas of the state and country.
During his budget presentation before the County Commission on Monday, Iron County Auditor Dan Jessen spoke at length about the financial impacts that the COVID-19 virus has had on the local economy.
Afterward, Jessen spoke with Cedar City News regarding some of the key statistics and trends. He said he’s kept a close eye on five revenue numbers in particular throughout the pandemic: restaurant tax, hotel tax, sales tax, fuel tax and building permits.
“Every month this year, I have been watching those five like a hawk,” he said. “And if it looked like revenues were diving, we would open our budget, make some adjustments and react to that. Because the county was in, and is in, a great position financially.”
Jessen said Iron County was able to avoid the mass layoffs and deep budget cuts seen in other areas.
“What happened was, we had sales tax that never dipped. In fact, this is a flagship year for sales tax,” Jessen said, adding the federal government’s COVID-19 relief package played a key role.
“My opinion is that it’s because the federal government dumped $2 trillion into the economy. Even when people spend money online, we get a piece of that sales tax because of a deal that the state tax commission cut with Amazon and eBay and (other online sellers) a couple of years ago, so sales tax has been good all year. It has been running strong. It hasn’t even fallen off.”
Additionally, some $2.6 million in CARES Act relief funding was distributed to Iron County businesses that had suffered losses between March and November, he added, noting that a total of 153 businesses throughout the county and its municipalities received CARES money.
The Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program provided even greater relief, with hundreds of local businesses collectively receiving millions of dollars in PPP loans and grants.
Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson-Edwards said Cedar City had 800 businesses that received some form of PPP relief, to the tune of at least $38 million collectively.
The mayor also cited several other sources of relief that also helped, including the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, the state’s Small Business Bridge loans and local chamber of commerce grants.
Jessen said the PPP loans and grants in particular helped keep a number of companies, particularly smaller businesses, stay open for business when “they no doubt otherwise would have gone under.”
“I think that they really helped salvage the economy,” he said.
Regarding unemployment, Jessen noted that Utahns have regained nearly all of the jobs lost earlier this year, starting when the pandemic first hit in mid-March.
“Looking at job loss from October of 2019 to October 2020, Utah is just barely down – like half a percent – meaning we mostly have recovered,” Jessen said, noting that Utah’s unemployment rate as of October 2020 was 4.1%.
By comparison, California’s unemployment rate dipped to 9.3 percent in October, after peaking at 16.4% in April and May. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show the nationwide unemployment rate at 6.7% as of the end of November.
One area that has been particularly strong in Cedar City is new home construction, with the city issuing a total of 727 building permits this year as of Nov. 30, compared to 591 in all of 2019, according to city figures. Countywide, however, the residential growth numbers are not that remarkable and are comparable to average year, according to Jessen.
And while tourism-related businesses have certainly taken a hit, it was Iron County’s popularity as a recreational tourist destination that helped it continue to bring in visitors and money during the pandemic, Jessen added.
“Iron County has done better than most counties in the state, because of all the recreation. Everybody left Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, and they came to play in rural areas,” he said. “And so after that initial drop when everything was shut down, people came here and traffic in Cedar City got busy.”
Maria Twitchell, executive director of the Visit Cedar City – Brian Head Iron County Tourism Bureau, agreed and explained further how Iron County was able to continue to attract tourists during the pandemic.
“Travelers were focusing on road trips, destinations close by, small towns and places that had wide-open places and outdoor recreation, and Iron County really fit the bill,” she said. “We saw an influx of visitors from California, Nevada and Washington state, as their states had longer stay-at-home orders and many destinations were not open to travel until late summer.”
While the cancellation of major Cedar City events such as the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Utah Summer Games and SimonFest, along with various other smaller events, left a profound impact that was felt by many, Twitchell said people still found plenty of other reasons to visit Iron County.
“Public lands and outdoor recreation areas seemed to see the most success in terms of visitation,” she noted, adding that Cedar Breaks National Monument saw 870,509 visitors this year, an increase of 46% over the previous year.
Additionally, she said, “Brian Head Resort reported their mountain bike park and activity center had their best summer on record, despite canceling most of their weekend events. … Campgrounds were full.”
In Cedar City, at least 14 major baseball and softball tournaments were staged throughout the summer, bringing many young athletes and their families to town, something which Wilson-Edwards said was a boon to the economy as well.
“We realized that (the tournaments) would bring in outside revenue and that we could host them in a safe way that wouldn’t impact our COVID numbers, and they didn’t,” she said. “But it still made it so that we had revenue. We had things going on in our community.”
The mayor added that monthly sales tax revenues have been up by about 20% throughout the year compared to last year.
“And it’s not all due to one particular thing. It’s due to our community members – that grit and tenacity that we have to work together in difficult times.”
In addition to the sports tournaments, the mayor also cited various other events that brought in visitors this year, including the half marathon road race, the Belgian Waffle Ride cycling event, the Fourth of July parade, the Cedar Heritage and Livestock Festival and the holiday lighting ceremony, just to name a few.
“We just didn’t shut down, we reevaluated, we changed courses and figured out how to still be able to do things and to bring the economic impact into our community,” Wilson-Edwards said.
“This year has been all about adapting,” she added. “From our personal lives, to the city, to businesses, everyone has had to adapt. And I am personally really proud of how our city has adapted.”
Despite the residents’ tenacity, Wilson-Edwards said she couldn’t negate the fact that “there are still people struggling, families struggling and businesses struggling.”
“But we have had a number of businesses here, unlike other places in this state and in the country, that have been able to open and thrive during this unprecedented time. So we’re in a very unique situation here in Cedar City, and it’s only going to get better in 2021.”
Jessen expressed similar optimism as he presented the proposed 2021 fiscal budget during the County Commission meeting. To see a draft of the document, click here.
“In summary, 2021 may bring a delayed recession, or it may be more similar to 2020 in which Iron County fared well overall,” Jessen wrote in the summary that prefaced the budget document. “These times are literally unprecedented, so it is anybody’s guess. However, Iron County is financially strong, is virtually debt free, has strong fund balances and is financially prepared for what 2021 will throw at us.”
For her part, Twitchell said the tourism bureau is also looking forward to next year, and she plans to continue promoting Iron County as a place with scenic, wide-open areas that are perfect for recreation and social distancing,
“Even with a vaccine, visitors will still seek out destinations that are safe and not crowded,” she said. “We are looking forward to hosting events again in 2021 and will help our event organizers with marketing and grant opportunities.”
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