Guest opinion: The new northbound train: Weber-Davis collaboration is express route to economic growth

Michael Parker 01Some big news hit Weber and Davis County this past week and having been close to the origins of this effort, I wanted to share my perspective on how things came together in detail.

Few may know this, but Ogden was once Utah’s economic hub, thanks to the Lucin Cutoff. If you’re asking what that is, it’s the rail line that splits the Great Salt Lake in two.

Yes, in 1902 the Salt Lake Commercial Club – the predecessor to today’s Salt Lake Chamber – was founded in part of a because the northbound train for growth was in Weber County. As the story goes, Salt Lake business and civic leaders rallied together to take control of their economic future when it appeared the railroad’s investment would rival the capital city’s economic power and crown northern Utah king. The Club went to war with the railroads; salty, right?

So, it’s fitting that while we celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, northern Utah is picking up some steam economically. How may you ask? Well, just this past week, Weber and Davis County formally joined forces to begin a new organization that looks past their jurisdictional boundaries to elevate economic development for their entire region.

This brand new and innovative endeavor is now moving down the track and will change the economic development landscape not just in Utah, or even the intermountain west, but conceivably the nation.

Just like the Lucin Cutoff, the regional approach by Weber and Davis’ effort will set a high-water mark for economic development. Why? Because economic activity doesn’t stop when one city or county ends, and another begins – even if a snow plow does.

Regional Economies Are The Future

In reality, the Wasatch Front – especially Weber and Davis – is one large metro economy. No longer are there gaps between our major urban counties or cities. These counties are intrinsically interdependent, and the sooner we realize this, the more competitive our state and region will be.

In 2018, Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams successfully advanced a resolution to codify this reality with a unanimous vote by both bodies of the Legislature asking the Census Bureau to review our Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) designations [Provo-Orem MSA, Salt Lake-Tooele MSA, and Odgen-Clearfield MSA].

“We are one of the most urban areas in the country when you look at the Wasatch Front collectively,” Wilson said to the House committee at the time. “Someone from the outside may think those are three very distinct and independent economies, but anyone who lives here realizes those are all one economy — one area that is interconnected in a lot of ways.”

The Wasatch Front is home 85% of our state’s population along with a roughly 90-mile contiguous economic powerhouse. So, competition, in this case, isn’t in everyone’s best interest.

We need more coopetition, yes, cooperative competition. And that’s precisely that path forward for Weber and Davis. In fact, there is so much overlap between Davis and Weber, that when a job is created in one of the two counties, it likely supports a family in the other. For example, a near equal share of Davis and Weber County residents – 18,400 – pass each other on I-15 to commute between the two counties each day. That’s the beauty of this new regional approach: when one wins – they all win.

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a large group of stakeholders working towards this innovative, collaborative, and soon to be impactful effort. Given its potential and this new launching off point, I wanted to share what has set the stage for this new effort and highlight a few folks who are bringing this from simply a plan to now a reality.

Data-Driven Strategy for Economic Development

In 2017, regional leaders identified that the state’s second largest metro-statistical area was not meeting its true potential and a course correction was necessary. That recognition led to a comprehensive review of Weber County’s and the region’s economic development profile and strategy.

Current Weber County Commissioner Jim Harvey, and his former colleagues James Ebert and Kerry Gibson, and former Davis County commissioners Brett Millburn and Jim Smith, quickly assembled a working group of experts, business leaders, and other key stakeholders to develop a strategic plan to elevate economic development in the region.

Rather than producing another white paper that sat on the shelf, my colleagues, Abby Osborne, Steven Hunter and myself, were asked to facilitate this working group of regional stakeholders and establish a clear path to better balancing economic growth along the Wasatch Front.

This analysis included a deep dive on the region’s strengths and weaknesses. In total, 1,153 business were surveyed, dozens of meetings and workshops were held, and nearly 100 in-depth interviews with business and civic leaders established a baseline of priorities. This type of collaboration only happens in Utah – and this was just the beginning. A more comprehensive analysis was done on economic data looking at everything from GDP to industry specializations with the potential for aggressive growth.

We’ve Got A Plan!

This comprehensive research eventually led to the release of Weber County’s 2018 Strategic Economic Development Plan on April 18, 2018. In the meanwhile, Davis County began to do a similar, but less intensive, analysis benefiting from the regional mindset set out by their sister county. As former commissioner, Ebert said at the time: “We have done a tremendous amount of work to really create this foundation to move our economic development forward.”

The plan, worthy of a good read on your nightstand, identified several critical areas to accelerate economic growth in the region and essential performance metrics to hold everyone accountable. This is in contrast to a vision document, which can be extremely helpful to a region’s growth but not necessarily built for immediate action.

Quickly, let’s just touch on the four key goals from the plan:

#1: Building Prosperity Through Higher Incomes – Weber County has the lowest median household income along the Wasatch Front. To address this head-on, a goal was set to increase household income for Weber County families by roughly $2,819 by 2022 in order to meet or exceed the state average.

#2: Attracting and Supporting High-Quality Job Creation – So, how would Weber County increase median household incomes by $2,819 in just five years? Targeted economic development. First, the Department of Workforce Services projected the area would create roughly 12,000 jobs over that period (that’s without any policy change and accounting for the business cycle.) To achieve their first goal, those 12,000 jobs must have an average salary of $56,800.

This type of goal setting allows for economic development efforts to evaluate potential opportunities with a clear lens that is focused on whether it would raise median incomes at the desired pace. This approach also fits well within Utah’s economic development incentives, which require wages that are above county median wages – often 10% to qualify for the incentive. This also protects the taxpayer and focuses economic development teams on quality projects.

#3: Rising to the County’s True Potential – I’m a big fan of measuring economic dynamism, otherwise known as the rate and direction of change in an economy. And achieving the other goals requires a complete change of pace for northern Utah’s economy.

As Natalie Gochnour, the state’s foremost economic mind recently put it, “…the northern Utah economy needs to start performing at its economic weight.” To put this in perspective, check out the chart below and note how the two counties combined rival the state’s current economic workhorse, Utah County. Competing with Utah County isn’t the objective, but their level of performance should be. In recent years, economic activity in Utah County has pushed the state from a top-10 job and wealth creator, to leading the nation.

Source: EDCUtah, 1/25/18

The third goal focused on the region maximizing, refining, and building off its unbelievable assets. This will allow both the number and quality of jobs created to achieve the first two goals. In this case, it merely needs the organization, branding, focus, and collaboration to compete at a whole new level. Take, for example, the area’s leaders shortly after the release of the new strategy rallying to expand transportation infrastructure and planning that will drive economic growth.

#4: Ensuring a Dynamic Economy – Believe it or not, Weber County has the highest density of manufacturing in the state, producing $2 billion in GDP for the region. And it’s more than widgets, the area could be the launch point for Utah’s claim to the title as the birthplace of the 4th industrial revolution. (Hey, it’s not too big a goal, the University of Utah helped invent the Internet.)

The region is home to the ideal number and type of “catalyst” companies for key clusters – and plenty of hipsters too. For example, Autoliv – the world’s largest automotive safety supplier, calls the region home. Their presence could be expanded and provide the bedrock of an autonomous vehicle technology hub.

Another is advanced materials, which might be this region’s middle name. In fact, this is Utah’s Composite Corridor, employing 14,000 Utahns and setting the stage for decades long leadership in materials-based economic growth. A key underlying factor for this? How about Hill Air Force Base and it’s $3.34 billion economic impact and associated defense and aerospace advantages and companies. Not to mention, Ben Lomond might be the tallest peak in the Silicon Slopes since the base is home to more software engineers than anywhere else in the state.

Lastly, Weber County and the region could quickly become one of the nation’s premier life science and pharmaceutical hubs with an unrivaled density of top-tier workforce in this space and home to companies like Fresenius USA Manufacturing.

One of these industry assets would be valuable to a region, but this kind of diversity could rival just about any metro region in the world.

Putting Goals into Action: A Regional Approach Begins to Shine

These four goals of wealth and job creation, elevated economic development and maximizing strategic clusters are the pillars behind the region’s new efforts to meet their economic potential. Importantly, they are accompanied by a clear roadmap of strategies to achieve them, chief among them, pursuing a regional approach to economic development.

During this entire process, stakeholders from both counties began to meet and understand that a regional approach would allow them to compete at a much higher level, maximize their shared assets, compensate for deficiencies and better utilize resources to the benefit of their local taxpayers.

In conjunction – and a major nod of confidence to the new strategy – the Utah Legislature in 2018 committed nearly $400,000 to this regional effort. So, while the other transformative economic development initiatives – such as the Utah Inland Port, the Point of the Mountain, a rising downtown in Salt Lake and Sandy – grab the headlines, this region is getting ready to break out and compete at a whole new level.

To be clear, the work of many over the past year has been nothing short of remarkable and a demonstration of real economic leadership. For example, a change in both county’s commissions in 2018, could have quickly scuttled the effort. Instead, former Layton Mayor and now Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson, and former legislator and Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer elevated and expedited this vision.

Not to mention the support and direct engagement of Speaker Brad Wilson, President Stuart Adams, Senators Ann Milner, and Jerry Stevenson, and Representative Mike Shultz. You could say having that kind legislative leadership lets everyone know it’s time get on board. Also critical was the engagement of local elected officials like Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell, and many other partners and elected officials.

And just like the Golden Spike, the key to bringing this all together has been EDCUtah and the leadership of Theresa Foxley, Mike Flynn, and their entire team. In my opinion, EDCUtah is the premier organization of its type in the nation. Their data and research powered most of the backbone to this strategy.

EDCUtah won a competitive bid process to manage this opportunity for many reasons, but particularly because Flynn worked in a similar regional approach that was much more complex straddling state lines.

Notably, the two counties’ sizeable initial investment, when combined with the Legislature’s appropriation, means the new organization will launch with significant momentum with the expertise of EDCUtah powering the effort. This is an important connection, because establishing a sister organization managed by EDCUtah will ensure the effort is complementary and additive, rather than competitive, within the state’s comprehensive economic development strategy.

Looking ahead, I’m beyond ecstatic about this effort coming to reality. In just the next few months, the new organization will be focusing on a new board, establishing a brand, developing a program of work and hiring key personnel.

I’m confident it will be more than successful and a model for others to follow. There is tremendous leadership from the public, private, and non-profit sector driving this forward. It is quintessential Utah: collaborative, forward-looking, and innovative. In short, it’s time to get on the northbound train, it’s going to have a head of steam coming down the track to balancing economic growth along the Wasatch Front, and the Weber-Davis express is just getting started.

Michael Parker is the Vice President of Public Affairs, Marketing and Senior Economist for Ivory Homes and a former partner at PGCC Strategies, which managed the development of the 2018 Weber County Strategy Economic Development Plan.


Parker is the former Vice President of Public Policy at the Salt Lake Chamber and has studied regional economic theory and resilience and policy at the London School of Economics and University of Utah. He also teaches Public Finance in the Master of Public Policy Program and Economics Department at the University of Utah. Share your throughs with him on Twitter @Mr_MikeParker or connect on LinkedIn.