Showcasing Economic Optimism in South West Utah

Intermountain Healthcare is about to begin the largest private capital investment project in the history of Washington County – the $180 million, 270,000 square-foot expansion of the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George. 

And that has Southern Utah leaders like Site Select Plus Director Scott Hirschi ecstatic.

Speaking after the annual "What's Up Down South?" Economic Summit, held at the Dixie Center in January, Hirschi noted that IHC is the largest private employer in the county, pays some of the highest wages across the workforce and is an extremely important player in the local economy.

"IHC's investment here sends a positive message about our future in the southwest corner of the state," he added. "The expansion project is a major economic advancement for not only Washington County, but this entire region. It will mean more jobs and greater access to healthcare services for our residents."

The Dixie Regional Medical Center expansion will include new operating rooms, labs and patient rooms, and a main campus location for its women's and children's services and its acute rehab services.

IHC's investment is one of numerous major developments taking place in the area. Dixie State University is expanding, Viracon, the commercial glass manufacturer, reopened its plant in December and a new, five-star luxury resort is in the works in Ivins.

Gary Cahoon, Viracon's director of operational finance, spoke to EDCUtah's guests at the organization's annual Entrada Reception the evening before the "What's Up Down South?" Summit. He said the commercial glass manufacturer expects to be at full strength by the end of 2015, with more than 400 employees. The manufacturer originally opened in St. George in 2006, but had to shutter the plant in 2012 because of the sour economy.

Last September the company announced it would re-open the St. George plant. In December Viracon hired its first wave of employees and is now in full operation.

"We are thrilled to see Viracon reopen," said Hirschi. "We've worked hard to diversify our economy and having these manufacturing jobs come back is significant. Manufacturing is an industry we have targeted because it typically pays higher wagers than other sectors and has the indirect benefit of creating two to four other jobs for every manufacturing job."

The development of the world-class Sentierre Resort and Sanctuary in Ivins' Padre Canyon also has people buzzing. Hirschi called the development a game changer that will put Ivins City on the map as a resort town, attracting clientele from across the globe. Washington County has numerous four- and five-star resorts, but Sentierre is different.

"This resort will not be like your typical spa class," he added. "In future years, people will look back at the Sentierre development and frame it the way you would the introduction of air conditioning or golf to St. George, or the opening of Interstate 15 through the Virgin River Gorge. It's that big of a deal."

Sentierre is a name that combines two French words to symbolically mean "pathways on Earth," where man and nature come together, and transcends the traditional experiences one might expect in a resort, hotel or destination by offering "pathways that stimulate all of the senses."

The development will be built just below the Tuacahn Center for the Arts on a stunning 42-acre parcel at the foot of what locals refer to as "Red Mountain." It encapsulates an organic cluster of low-slung buildings growing up the slope toward the mountain's base. Clusters of private villas, luxury guest units and a five-star hotel with restaurant, spa and hospitality building are all within the project's scope.

The upbeat atmosphere one can feel in the southwest region of the state was reflected by attendees of the "What's Up Down South?" Economic Summit. Jerry Amundsen, an engineer for HW Lochner, said he attends the summit every year because he "finds great value in knowing what's happening in the local economy and the opportunity to network with peers and other community and business leaders."

Hirschi described the upbeat atmosphere as part of the positive dynamic that's taken hold in the southwest region. "Of course we can't say enough about the location or our great weather, but a growing community also helps generate a positive outlook, and we find that our summit attendees are usually quite optimistic," he added.

Department of Workforce Services Regional Economist Lecia Langston put the optimism into economic perspective during the summit, describing growth in the region as robust, but not too heady. For 2014, Washington County added about 3,000 jobs and experienced broad based growth across all industries. The big change, she noted, was that construction has become less important as a source of employment.

She continued, "The region has done well to diversify."

Year-over-year job growth is bouncing around the five percent mark, where it has been four about three years, according to Langston, and the southwest corner is one of the state's strongest regions. The unemployment rate for 2014 was about 4.1 percent. Looking ahead, she said 2015 will be a year of continued moderate growth. One of the biggest challenges to face the area is the near full employment, which will likely put upward pressure on wages.

"When fast food restaurants advertise jobs on their marquees, you know you are at about full employment," she quipped.

One of the interesting aspects about the Southern Utah economy is its workforce. Hirschi said there is a misconception that Washington County's population is dominated by snowbirds and retirees. In reality, retirees only make up about 18 percent of the population. About 30 percent of the residents are under age 19, while more than 50 percent of the population is within the working age range.

"Our demographics are not that unique from the rest of the state," he noted. "That may come as a surprise to a lot of people. We find that our workforce is a major factor in location decisions, especially for value-added companies. Our workforce is about 60,000 strong, and they are educated and highly productive. In fact, I have companies tell me their St. George operations are the most productive of all their locations."