The St. George area is raising its profile within Utah’s statewide economy, riding new growth and development to a fast-paced job market and diverse market environment, state business leaders said Wednesday.
Washington County’s reputation as a destination location, with its sunny weather and pretty scenery, has brought marked change in recent years, fueling fastest-in-the nation population growth, a job market growing at nearly twice the statewide average, escalating property values and an endless series of new construction projects.
With that growth, the area is now building its reputation as a destination for new businesses, according to state and local business leaders assembled for a business summit in St. George hosted by the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce.
“St. George has been a community that’s relatable for the rest of the state, that isn’t Salt Lake (City),” said Don Willie, executive director of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Dixie State University. “But you’ve seen so much growth over the last decade and beyond that the rest of the state can look at St. George and say, what did they do? What did they do that was different?”
The fast-growing area drew praise in speeches by Gov. Gary Herbert and Mitt Romney, the former presidential candidate and current candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In meetings on business specifics like tax law, cyber security and marketing, there was a consistent theme among those in attendance — heavy optimism about business development in the area.
Linda Gillmore, who heads the office of rural development for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the state’s southwestern corner is starting to diversify its economy, building more jobs and businesses in technology and software, in life sciences and medicine, and in the financial sector, shifting away from the “rural” designation it technically still holds within state government.
“You have a thriving business community and an excellent quality of life,” she said.
Obstacles to overcome
The growth trend has been obvious in St. George for years, but the reputation as a hot spot for new business made national news earlier this year when the city and its surrounding metro area ranked as the fastest-growing among all 540 areas measured in the U.S., having grown about 4 percent between June of 2016 and June of 2017 to an estimated 165,662 people.
New home construction had been steady for years, but the growth accelerated last year, with investors pumping millions into new stores, new restaurants, new service stations and other developments. The City of St. George counted $368 million worth of new development projects in 2017, up from $191 million two years previous.
But there are still hurdles for new businesses moving into the area, Gillmore said.
The area, still relatively small compared to the Wasatch Front and isolated geographically, struggles to provide enough skilled workers to attract some companies.
And while the scenic public lands and warm temperatures make it an attractive place to live, all the new move-ins have contributed to rising housing costs, making it more difficult for workers to get by on smaller salaries.
Jared Goodspeed, an associate director with the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative’s southern Utah office, said there is plenty of brain power and new ideas for business in the St. George area, but when it comes to matching the competitiveness of larger economies around Salt Lake City, the numbers just aren’t there yet.
“We have an amazing start here, but we are rural in that we still have a ways to go,” he said.
The trendlines are all positive though, Goodspeed and others agreed, pointing to the area’s fast-paced growth as evidence that existing policies at both the state and local levels are spurring the economy along to new heights.
The St. George area and the rest of Washington County added nearly 3,300 jobs last year, with December 2017 showing a 5.3 percent increase over December 2016, according the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
During the same period, nearby Iron County showed a 4.1 percent improvement.
Both counties are outpacing the statewide average of 3.6 percent and are well ahead of the national rate of 1.5 percent.
“People don’t realize what a gem we have down here,” said Pam Palermo, president of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s all about exposure and letting the world know about us.”
Palermo said she saw many new faces at the summit, and was encouraged by the representation from both local businesses and state business leaders.
Given the way they spoke about St. George, she said the area has developed a new kind of reputation.
“It’s just about building excitement and being able to talk about what we have down here. I think we accomplished that today,” she said.
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