Governor Spencer Cox and several cabinet members visited Central Utah Monday, June 7 and spent time in the North Sevier area as he toured the facilities of both Redmond Minerals and Burns Saddlery and met with County Commissioners, Mayor Jed Maxwell, and other prominent local business owners. The purpose of his visit was to learn more about rural jobs and how better the state can support rural economies.
“This is my backyard,” said Cox. “This is the area I grew up in and it is important to me that my team sees what I see. It is really easy to get trapped on the Wasatch Front and forget the crucial role this area plays in our State. It’s important that they understand how Rural Utah businesses provide jobs and resources, including taxes and royalties for infrastructure, not only here, but for those on the Wasatch Front as well.”
Speaking of his visit to local businesses, he praised the diversity of the exports and the sophistication of their manufacturing.
“It is crucial we keep these industries alive. It is part of who we are,” he said. “People come from all over to see these sophisticated operations and both include an international clientele. We have smart people from these small towns and their manufacturing is just as good or better than we can get anywhere. The employees are fantastic. I want my team to see these things firsthand.”
Salina City Mayor Jed Maxwell informed the Governor of the city’s projects, in particular the rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure and noted the need for grants for infrastructure projects may be more in need than recreation grants.
“With money issues, it’s tough to keep everything up and running. We need to find money for infrastructure more so than recreation at some point. I feel like we’ve seen unlimited recreation grant money but no infrastructure coming down the pike,” said Maxwell. “It makes it difficult for small towns with a small tax base.”
Maxwell also expressed praise for the Community Impact Board and gratitude for their support of the area as so much is dependent on their funding.
Malcolm Nash, Sevier County’s Economic Director, updated the Governor on the affairs of the County, reporting that the Solar Farm west of Sigurd has been completed and Snow Richfield has seen and met a need for low-cost programs that better reflect industry needs. Nash mentioned issues such as the critical need for water and the hinderance of the Biden administration in oil, gas, and coal exploration. Sevier County tourism numbers didn’t trend downward during the pandemic as was expected, and part of that was credited to the Sevier Valley Center which, though social distancing and meeting health requirements, was able to host multiple sporting events at the collegiate and high school levels.
Speaking of Salina, Nash reported on a marketing survey which is nearing completion for the Salina Industrial Park, which was built twenty-years ago, and results will be used to assertively market the real estate; he also emphasized the “great gem” Salina has in the Blackhawk Arena, adding both provide potential for growth in the area.
Addressing the housing shortage in the area, Governor Cox commiserated, saying that though many people want to move here, there is a housing shortage, and he hopes next year the market will flatten. He also spoke of the employee shortage and the unemployment payments issue. He said participation in the workforce is still low, it hasn’t bounced back, and reported that a significant portion of those not returning are women, for lots of reasons.
“These challenges aren’t going away,” said Cox. “And the employee thing is tough. This is a problem across the country. You have to pay people a lot more to do something than to do nothing, and we’ve taken a lot of heat for pulling that back, but we still have 70,000 jobs open in the state and we only have 29,000 people on unemployment. So even if they all got a job, we’d still be really short.”
Carson Pollasto, President and CEO of Wolverine Fuels, detailed his company’s status, stating they employ 900 between Skyline and SUFCO mines and additionally add 300 support jobs which contribute over $300 million to the local economy. Proud of the fact that SUFCO is the oldest mine in the country, their operation minimizes surface issues due to their underground tactics and have a good track record with minimal disturbance to the environment. In addition, their safety record is among the best in the industry. Exporting is a big issue with Wolverine and without ports to do so the company isn’t economically viable because though SUFCO Coal mainly stays in Utah, Skyline’s is exported.
Relating challenges, Pollasto expressed frustration at current contract lengths required by some as it is difficult to deploy capitol without some security. In addition, Utah producers are held to a settlement made in California with the Sierra Club which hinders economically viable mining in this state. They praised Representative Albrecht’s recent update to the state’s energy bill which requires reserves though some of their mines, in particular Huntington and Hunter, have been receiving pressure to reduce stockpiling by the PEC by over 500,000 tons.
“Haven’t we learned anything from Texas?” joked Cox. “Having a reserve on site is a no brainer. I can’t believe the PEC is even touching that right now.”
Keith Kimball communicated Barney Trucking’s current situation, affirming that they’ve diversified from coal, which is actually their minority haul, with company expansion in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming. Business expansion includes gypsum, construction aggregates, cement/fly ash, and lime.
Speaking of their discouragements faced, Kimball said, like many other businesses, employees are hard to come by, and government involvement in their equipment standards makes things difficult.
“The more they make it ‘safe’, the harder it is to use. Particularly with emissions. The better fuel mileage is great, but we have to stay up and running too,” he said.
Kim Robinson, President of Robinson Transport, said his company is celebrating 75 years this year and while the majority of their haul has been coal, they’ve diversified and they too, are down about 30 employees from what they need, and it’s not just drivers, the demand for mechanics is just as great. In addition, the pandemic has made it difficult to order and receive equipment parts and supplies.
Governor Cox has two brothers who are truck drivers, one of whom actually worked for Robinson Transport, and he said the family has had multiple discussions on the trucking industry and issues it faces, so he is personally vested in the issues.
“We had a meeting about two weeks ago with the President of the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, talking about inflation, and it was interesting, obviously the feds keep printing money, fake money, that ends up into our accounts in the form of stimulus checks, that’s going to drive the price of ‘stuff’. Christensen Arms can’t make enough guns to sell, people are just buying stuff, and the problem with this, in the pandemic, and it makes sense, is that according to this economist, consumption coming out of a pandemic will always increase faster than production. The problem we have right now is that while we’re coming out of the pandemic because we’ve done such a good job here in the United States, the rest of the world isn’t. They’re still a few months away from where we are right now, and a lot of the stuff, like truck parts, chips, are made in other countries. We can’t get the supplies because they’re still shut down. It’s just going to hold us back, which is going to drive prices up and it is going to cause all kinds of problems. So whether that inflation is temporary and it’ll readjust when things get back to normal or whether it’s long term and we’re going to see some of the stuff we saw in the late ‘70’s, we don’t know yet, but if we don’t have people to make stuff, we’re going to pay more for it, and that’s going to …. That’s a bad cycle to be in.”
He spoke of the need for local, county, and state entities working together and said he’d love for everyone to think about water. He said they’re working on putting together a comprehensive water strategy which is two fold, one part conservation and the other part new water storage, whether it be underground, above ground.
“If we’re going to grow like this, we’ve got to do more,” he said. “The people that were here first, they did it for us, and it is time we start doing it for the next generation.