Wasatch Back Economic Summit addresses opportunities, challenges with growth
Hundreds of business owners from Summit and Wasatch counties gathered in the Bernese Events Center at the Zermatt Resort in Midway on May 15. They all turned their heads to the keynote speaker as she told them what many had already speculated. “Buckle up,” she said. “The Wasatch Back will continue to feel extraordinary growth pressures.”
The presentation was part of the first Wasatch Back Economic Summit, a joint event put on by the Park City Chamber/Bureau and Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce. The summit’s goal, which was printed on signs and logos throughout the event hall, was to connect the communities in the two counties.
The summit began with a speech from Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. She discussed rising population and job growth in the two counties, which she said brings opportunities but also “significant challenges.”
Those challenges include a lack of affordable housing, pressures on open land conservation and difficulty filling job positions. Each of the nine breakout sessions that followed Gochnour’s presentation addressed those complexities. The sessions also discussed resources for small businesses and how some non-hospitality businesses are thriving.
Bill Malone, president and CEO of the Chamber/Bureau, said that Gochnour and the closing speaker Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, did a good job of not only showing the crowd the numbers, but giving business owners and employees perspective by comparing them to those of the state and the nation. He said that it was a good opportunity for the two counties to see the commonalities in their “economic challenges of the future.” More than 300 individuals attended.
Jeni Jones, who works in public relations for the Park City Hospital and Heber Valley Hospital, came to the event to learn about the growth, because she said that it will have a large effect on both hospitals. The changing demographics of residents and future transportation projects are particularly imperative to the hospitals.
“We need to know how to plan for our workforce as well as know what our patient population is going to be,” she said.
She, like many of the attendees, said that it was encouraging to see Wasatch and Summit counties uniting at the event to address issues.
“I think it’s really a smart idea to bring these two communities together to try to work on these problems and have a big picture look at the economic impact that we are facing with all of the growth,” she said.
Shirin Spangenberg owns three businesses, including Escape Room Park City, and said that collaboration between the counties is long overdue.
She walked away from the event feeling overwhelmed about all of the growth that is happening, particularly as it relates to hiring. According to a presentation from Wendy Horne, employment center supervisor for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, job growth in Summit County is at 0.7 percent because of the lack of snow last winter, but Wasatch County’s job growth is at 10.4 percent. Unemployment for both is around 3 percent.
With a strong and growing economy, many businesses are finding it hard to hire, which is a problem Spangenberg ran into last year. She said that the summit focused less on providing solutions, but rather on bringing up the problems that the counties might face in the future and encouraging industries to work together to solve them.
“This gives us a lot to think about, and a lot to say, ‘What are we going to do?’” she said.
The next steps for the counties was what most business owners were pondering throughout the event, a thought that was reflected in Gochnour’s closing remarks.
“Take responsibility for what the Wasatch Back becomes,” she said. “Someone did something to make it what it is now. What are you doing for what’s next?”
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