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In sunny southern Utah, the business climate is hot and getting hotter

St. George • When Brigham Young called pioneers to leave the Salt Lake Valley and settle in southern Utah, many of them did not want to go.

“Why, that is like sending me out of this world,” they complained.

It certainly was for some of the 309 families Young sent in 1861 to establish what was to become St. George. When they arrived in December of that year, the land more resembled perdition than paradise.

As the late St. George resident and author Roberta Blake Barnum recounted in a 2011 edition of St. George Magazine:

“It started raining Christmas night and didn’t stop for 40 days. Food was scarce, malnutrition was common, and the rains deluged settlers with floods and mosquitoes. Malaria, typhoid, and other diseases added to their misery, claiming 134 lives — 99 of them children under the age of 8 — over the next four years.”

The withering heat was also an issue. Years later, long after St. George was founded but before air conditioning, colorful Latter-day Saint leader J. Golden Kimball famously quipped:

“If I had a house in hell and a house in St. George, I’d rent out the one in St. George and live in hell.”

Oh, how times — and sentiments — have changed.

St. George and Cedar City — in southwestern Utah’s Washington and Iron counties, respectively — are now destinations of choice rather than places of last resort.

From those 309 early hardscrabble pioneers, Washington County residents now top 180,000, a 30.5% jump from 2010. Neighboring Iron County swelled above 57,000, up 24% from a decade ago.

Job growth in the St. George and Cedar City areas for the past two years ending in June was 5%, compared with 3.7% for Utah as a whole. In July, job growth in Washington and Iron counties was 4.7% and 4.1%, respectively. That’s over four times Utah’s 1.1% job growth.

Those numbers, combined with Washington County’s 2.6% and Iron County’s 2.7% unemployment rates, make economists take notice.

“That’s kind of crazy,” said Lecia Langston, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “For both areas, it’s like COVID never happened.”

And the economies in both areas, separated by a scant 50 miles, show few signs of slowing.

“We’ve had more interest in Cedar City and St. George than we’ve ever had,” said Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

That’s impressive, given the tally of businesses — both big and small — that now call St. George or Cedar City home.

For instance, the aerospace firm Intergalactic recently brought its headquarters, 40 employees and $23 million worth of capital investment to St. George.

Zonos, a St. George-based software company that simplifies duties, taxes and fees associated with cross-border commerce, recently announced it had raised $69 million in Series A funding, which will help bolster its economic reach and footprint. Series A is the name given to a company’s first round of venture capital financing.

Other major players include SkyWest, an aviation mainstay in St. George for years; RAM Co., which manufactures electro-mechanical devices; and Litehouse Foods in nearby Hurricane, which has undergone several expansions, just to name a few.

(Don Bumps via AP) A SkyWest plane in southern Utah, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017.

Up the road, Cedar City also touts its growing economic clout.

GOEX, a plastics manufacturing company, broke ground on a 125,000-square-foot facility in December and is expected to open in early 2022. It is projected to create 125 jobs over the next several years. American Packaging Corp., a Midwest company specializing in packaging for products in the food and health care industries, is also expanding to Cedar City. Once it is up and running in about 18 months, it is expected to bring 300 jobs to the area. And GAF, North America’s largest roofing manufacturer, opened a plant in Cedar City several years ago.

Other business newcomers to Iron County include Armscor, a gun and ammunition manufacturer that is in the process of moving from Nevada and is projecting to hire 300 people once it gets established. The area is also home to a burgeoning aviation industry led by MSC Aerospace and its three subsidiaries — Metalcraft, SyberJet Aircraft and Cedar Building Associates.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, on Saturday, July 3, 2021.

Location, location, location

Like real estate, location is an important factor in both areas’ success.

St. George and Cedar City are located along Interstate 15, near the I-70 corridor, and enjoy easy access to markets in northern Utah, Las Vegas, Southern California, Arizona and Colorado. Both places have airports, and Cedar City has the added bonus of access to rail.

“Our railroad connectivity has been a real plus here,” said Danny Stewart, economic development director for Cedar City and Iron County. “It came here in the 1920s for agriculture and tourism. And it’s been an important part of the economy for a long time. We are within a day’s journey of most western U.S. markets.”

Proximity to such signature attractions as Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Snow Canyon State Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Tuacahn Center for the Arts, Las Vegas, Lake Powell and a Tony-winning Shakespeare festival are also major drawing cards for tourists and businesses — along with the relative lack of traffic and an open-arms attitude when it comes to welcoming new ventures.

“If you have someone who enjoys the outdoors and enjoys a good bike ride or hike, it really only takes visiting this area one time and they are hooked,” said St. George Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Don Willie. “We’ve seen a massive influx of talent to St. George from people who come here to vacation. COVID gave them the chance to work remotely, and this was the first place they chose to move so they could enjoy that environment.”

Willie’s chamber counterpart in Cedar City, Chris McCormick, noted that the area’s short commutes make many want to go a considerable distance to relocate there.

“Our mean commute time in Cedar City is 12 minutes. When I lived in Texas, I drove over an hour to get to work,” he said. “And we have clean air because the wind blows all the time.”

Both areas also boast two colleges — Dixie State University and Dixie Technical College in St. George and Southern Utah University and Southwest Technical College in Cedar City — that help with workforce development by equipping residents with skills to land jobs in the manufacturing and high-tech companies coming to southern Utah.

Dixie State University’s name is a hot-button issue in the St. George area. The battle lines are drawn between those who want the name changed and those who insist it should stay the same.

Proponents of the name change argue the word “Dixie” evokes images of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Opponents contend leaving “Dixie” in the title honors the area’s heritage.

For all the heat the issue generates locally, it doesn’t typically resonate with businesses looking to expand or relocate to the St. George area.

Washington City Economic Development Director Rusty Hughes said some outside businesses mulling a move to the area are aware of the controversy, but it doesn’t seem to factor into their decision.

“They are more interested,” she said, “in the talent that is coming out of the universities and how easy it is to work with the university and the technical college in training [students] than they are in a possible name change.”

Hughes said the same goes for religion. Roughly 60% of Washington County residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In Iron County, the number is about 62%.

On one occasion, she had a California beer tap manufacturer express concern that moving his business to the predominantly Latter-day Saint area might be problematic.

“His concern was whether people would make beer taps if they were Mormon,” she recalled. “I told him it shouldn’t be a problem unless you try to make them drink the beer.”

Conversely, entrepreneurism is a major factor in southern Utah’s business appeal.

“We talk about this entrepreneurial spirit in Utah. It is intense in St. George,” said Willie, who added it has become much more focused and sophisticated recently.

Part of that is due to Dixie State University’s Atwood Innovation Plaza, which he helped found before becoming chamber president. The center helps pair entrepreneurs with expertise and resources to help them succeed.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students study in the Holland Building on the campus of Dixie State University.

Big dreams, low costs and small-town virtues

Both regions strive to promote existing businesses and greet new ones.

“We really care about our businesses,” said Shirlayne Quayle, St. George’s director of economic vitality and housing. “We care about being good partners and try to make the process of starting a business or relocating a business here as seamless as possible.”

That was a welcome change for John Cottam, who moved his Industrial Brush Corp. from California to St. George seven years ago. In California, he often found the local government to be more of an adversary than an ally. He said Utah’s government officials are friendlier, taxes are lower, regulations are fewer, and the cost of doing business much more reasonable.

“Almost everything,” Cottam said, “costs less in St. George than it did in California.”

He estimates those savings total about $500,000 annually, money he has plowed back into the business to start a research and development group, buy new machinery and develop new products.

Cedar City’s inviting business climate and small-town ambiance were major draws that lured Jason and Autumn Vanderhoven to relocate from Henderson, Nev., and open Choffy, a business that brews cocoa beans to simulate coffee.

The concoction, which Jason dreamed up during his sleep years after serving a Latter-day Saint mission to Brazil, aims to serve a tasty alternative to coffee.

He and his family looked all over Utah for somewhere to find their business bliss before deciding on Cedar City.

“People here care about you as a person. They care about you as a business and want to help where they can,” he said. “I found in a lot of the big cities, you are just a number. You tend to get lost. But in the small town, you have a sense of community.”

While the Vanderhovens’ fledgling business remains small, Jason dreams big.

“We want every home in America to have access to Choffy,” he said, “and then every home in the world.”

Nancy Van Matre, who moved with her husband, Larry, to St. George from Washington state and opened an interior design and furniture shop 3½ years ago, was attracted not by the bright prospects on the ground but by a shiny object in the sky.

“We came for the sun,” she said. “I’d rather have three months of hot than seven months of dreary cold,” she said, alluding to the weather the couple left behind in Spokane.

Larry is still employed by a Washington state business but enjoys working remotely from home. And since opening Cosy House and recently moving into a new building, Nancy has watched her sales skyrocket by 200%.

“I’m thrilled with my customers and the growth. It’s fantastic,” she said. “It has been a great move for us.”

Looming challenges, glowing future

As positive as life and business are in St. George and Cedar City, challenges do threaten the region’s economic vitality.

Like the rest of Utah, the lack of affordable housing in St. George and Cedar City presents a major problem. Once much cheaper than homes in California, home prices in both areas are almost as pricey.

Further exacerbating matters, wages in both areas are low. The average monthly wage in Washington County is $3,400, and Iron County’s is $3,100 — substantially less than the statewide average of $4,600.

Stefanie Bevans — who owns two St. George businesses, Steamroller Print and Design to Print, with husband Josh — said a tight labor market and the lack of affordable housing are issues.

“A lot of people want to move here and take jobs with us,” she said. “We might offer a really good job. But if we’re not offering a $100,000-plus salary, we tell them not to bother.”

To address the problem, Cedar City officials are looking at reducing lot sizes to accommodate more affordable homes. In St. George, officials have created the Housing Action Coalition, a group of stakeholders from the public and private sectors tasked with exploring ways to boost the number of attainably priced homes for people from all walks of life and income levels.

St. George officials use the word “attainable” instead of “affordable” to describe the crisis because they believe the latter carries negative connotations that promote NIMBY (not in my backyard) thinking.

“If we’re not providing housing that our seniors on a fixed income can safely access and live in, as well as our young professionals who are graduating from Dixie State and Dixie Tech, we are missing the boat somewhere,” said Quayle, St. George’s economic vitality director.

Water also must be addressed in these mushrooming communities. Iron County is exploring piping water it owns in Beaver County to the Cedar City area. Another, albeit controversial possibility, to address Washington County’s water supply in the region is the planned Lake Powell pipeline.

“The more we work together to address our water situation, the better,” Quayle said. “Conservation is not the only solution. The Lake Powell pipeline is not the only solution. It will require a multipronged approach.”

For his part, Willie said local leaders must do a better job of planning for future growth and the attendant pressures on services, water and other resources that it will bring.

“You can either plan growth, or growth will plan you,” he said. “There’s no alternative. And I think what we’ve seen is that growth has planned us.”

Still, leaders in St. George and Cedar City are not letting challenges cloud their sunny outlook. Cedar City officials foresee a bright business future, and Willie believes St. George will continue to attract businesses and tourists, and maintain its standing as a resort town.

“We truly are the Park City of southern Utah,” he said. “Frankly, that is our destiny. We push back on that. But the fact of the matter is, we are a resort town because of the national parks, Snow Canyon and amenities like Tuacahn.”

And to top it off, J. Golden Kimball would be pleased to know, the St. George area even has central air conditioning.