While Box Elder and Cache Counties have rich histories in agriculture, the counties are producing more than cattle and feed stocks these days. They're growing jobs by diversifying and re-energizing their economies, focusing on clustered business environments where their strengths will improve the standard of living and do it faster than might happen otherwise.
In rural Box Elder County, for example, Washakie Renewable Energy produces 10 million gallons of high-grade biodiesel annually from an assortment of fats and oils, including waste oils from Wasatch Front restaurants, animal fats from meat processing plants and grease from wastewater treatment facilities.
In 2007, the company made a $40 million investment in its Plymouth location and continues to expand there. Washakie has set itself apart as the Intermountain West's leader for advanced biofuels and chemicals. Also in Plymouth, Nucor Steel processes recycled metals into steel products it ships down the road and across the globe. Its subsidiary, Vulcraft, in Brigham City, uses the recycled steel to make metal trusses for commercial buildings.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Cache County, GeoMetWatch will soon place six unique data-gathering sensors built by Utah State University's Advanced Weather Systems Laboratory (AWS) into geostationary orbit 22,236 miles above the equator, where the sensors will collect atmospheric data. The first launch will be in 2016, and the data collected will be conveyed to data centers around the world and processed into severe weather forecast information.
GeoMetWatch, one of about a dozen high-tech sensor-related manufacturing companies in Cache County, manufactures sensors being used in everything from satellites to agricultural products.
Logan, which the Milken Institute ranked as the top small city in America for business, is in the middle of a three- to five-year, $500,000 rebranding effort that seeks to draw awareness to the city. "Being at the far north end of the state and not near an interstate, we are a little off the beaten bath," says Logan City Economic Development Director Kirk Jensen, "so we undertook a marketing and branding campaign about three years ago to share our story."
Jensen and Cache Chamber of Commerce project leaders met this month with EDCUtah economic developers to explain the campaign and broaden the strategy to enlighten site selectors and business leaders about all of the benefits of locating a business in Logan and the Cache Valley. "Agriculture is a big part of who we are, but we need to diversify our economy," Jensen says.
To that end, the city is in the process of building an interactive online site locator that will feature industrial, commercial and real estate properties in the city and county. A business looking to locate or expand in the Cache Valley will be able to see satellite imagery of available properties and then drill down into meta data that includes workforce information and the income levels of residents within a certain radius of a property. For example, a machine shop could select a property in the database and then determine how many machinists reside within a specified radius of the property.
"With economic development, so much of the due diligence is done online, even before a site selector or commercial real estate executive picks up the phone," says Jensen of the site, which is slated to launch later this month. "We're trying to get good data out there, along with site availability, and we will drive traffic to the new website through advertising."
Playing Up Strengths
Back in Box Elder County, Economic Development Director Mitch Zundel says Brigham City did a cluster analysis that identified the county's three strongest economic clusters: advanced agriculture, advanced materials and shooting sports.
In agriculture, a large hog processing business is currently looking for a home in the county. Once settled, the operation could create 200 jobs and put $7 million into the local economy per year in additional wages. The company is said to have a supporting industry that could bring an additional 500 to 1,000 new indirect jobs to the county with an estimated economic impact of $190 million.
Other big advanced agriculture employers in the area include Malt-O-Meal, Honeyville Grains, West Liberty Foods and Big J Mill. An interesting side story, he says, is that many hay farmers in the county have hit pay dirt by selling and shipping hundreds of tons of bales to China.
In the advanced materials cluster, Zundel says Autoliv has a big presence in the county, with a plant near ATK in Promontory, a facility in Tremonton and another in Brigham City. Nucor Steel also has three plants in the county.
Discovering the shooting sports cluster was a bit of a surprise, Zundel notes. "But, the more you think about it, the more it makes sense," he says. The county has a big contingency of shooting ranges, archery events, duck and pheasant clubs and an enormous elk farm. Shooting sports also fit well with tourism, but now the county is trying to determine how it might help the cluster grow by adding more manufacturing and retail.
Box Elder County lost about 630 jobs when La-Z-Boy closed its Tremonton plant in 2008. Since then, Alliant Techsystems Inc. has cut close to 2,200 jobs and automotive airbag manufacturer Autoliv cut about 250 jobs in 2009. The job losses have been painful, but Zundel says the county is recovering. In 2013, manufacturing jobs grew by more than 530 year over year. Procter & Gamble and West Liberty Foods have helped sustain the economy, and Zundel says the future looks bright, with additional expansion and relocation projects on the horizon.
"We're on the upswing. Unfortunately, the things I can't talk about are the opportunities that get me the most excited," he notes.
A Northern Bond
Besides being neighbors, Box Elder and Cache Counties are connected in other beneficial ways. Utah State University has a satellite campus in Brigham City and the school just received the thumbs up from legislators that the state will help fund a new, 60,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility on the property once occupied by a K-Mart shopping center. Meanwhile, the Bridgerland Applied Technology College, which has campuses in Logan and Brigham City, would like to take up USU's existing location in Brigham City. The ATC will use the new location to expand its robotics training in support of the Autoliv air bag plant in Brigham City. Last year, the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP) provided a $175,000 grant to the Bridgerland Applied Technology College for the robotics training, which has helped Autoliv acquire the skilled labor it needs to run hundreds of robotic units.
In addition to its rebranding effort, Jensen says Logan is embarking on a multi-phase revitalization project for historic downtown and is working with a developer to begin phase one. The city's goal is to revitalize buildings and add energy to the core business district. The first phase would happen between Main Street and 200 North in the heart of downtown and envisions a mixed use, four-story facility that could include a new public library and retail and office space. Some 40,000 cars drive by that location every day, making it one of the most visible spots in the city.
To be sure, Box Elder and Cache Counties are two of the state's best kept secrets in terms of places to locate a business. With modest operating costs, access to a quality workforce, higher education and a plethora of recreational opportunities, Jensen and Zundel say the quality of life is second to none. Now their goals are to let more people in the on the secret.