‘Rural Rising’ – Utah Rural Summit Focuses on Economic Strengths

With Rural Rising! as its theme, the 2016 Utah Rural Summit focused on the current economic strengths of the rural economy and the emerging competitive advantages that flow from rural lifestyles and innovations.

The event took place Aug. 4-5 on the campus of Southern Utah University (SUU) in Cedar City.

Hosted by SUU and Utah Center for Rural Life, the summit drew leaders from government, business and education leaders across the state, including legislators, county commissioners, city officials, economic development and planning professionals and policy makers from both state and federal government offices.

Featured keynote addresses came from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, internationally acclaimed community branding expert Roger Brooks and newly appointed NBA New York Knicks Head Coach (and Utah Jazz All-Star) Jeff Hornacek. Other conference presenters included author and rural researcher Ben Winchester and numerous business leaders, state officials and local leaders.

According to conference organizer Wes Curtis, director of Southern Utah University’s Center for Rural Life, “When it comes to rural business incentives and state government support of rural economic development programs, Utah exceeds every other state in the country. There’s not even a close second,” he said. “Utah is the envy of rural economic developers across the nation and it’s a story worth telling.”

Winchester, a research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension, echoed the summit’s theme by citing research that contradicts many of the prevailing – but false – myths regarding rural America.

“Many assume that the rural story has already been told: small towns that keep getting smaller and churches, schools, clinics and businesses that have closed their doors,” said Winchester. “This deficit framework dominates how we discuss and envision our rural communities. The reality, however, is that the story of rural America since 1970 is rich and diverse, with many positive trends occurring.”

He went on to explain that rural America has been benefiting from “brain gain” over the past decade, and that entrepreneurial energy in rural areas is stronger than ever.

As for Brooks, he drew from his career as a widely recognized, premier community and destination branding expert to talk about the necessity of branding for rural areas. During the past 30 years he has helped thousands of people transform ordinary places, businesses and attractions into incredibly successful destinations. For example, he has assisted in the development and marketing of acclaimed destination resorts including Whistler Resort in British Columbia; Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Sunriver Resort in Central Oregon, and several others. In Utah, Brooks assisted Box Elder, Kane, Daggett and Emery Counties in developing new brands.

The summit also featured networking opportunities, a number of breakout sessions covering topics such as natural resources, public lands issues and challenges facing energy development, as well as a special tourism track. Other discussions focused on infrastructure investment incentives for rural businesses, updates on the Public Lands Initiative and a special report on “The State of Rural Utah.” Lockheed-Martin hosted an afternoon ice cream social on day one of the summit as part of its effort to recruit rural Utah suppliers.

During the summit, Nan Anderson, executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Association, and State Sen. Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund (District 24), received the Rural Honors Awards while, Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), and Vicki Varela, managing director of tourism, film and global branding for GOED, received Friends of Rural Utah Awards.