by Paul Moberly and Kyle Slaughter, Salt Lake City, Utah
On June 22, 2015, the Garfield County Commission voted unanimously to declare a countywide state of emergency. No natural disaster had occurred—the emergency which sparked the declaration came from “declining enrollment in local schools as a result of restrictive federal land management policies.” The Utah Governor’s Office responded the same day, issuing a statement, “We recognize there are significant challenges in Garfield County...The administration will continue to focus on bringing quality jobs despite federal regulations that have stifled the economic growth in the area for years.” Soon after, state representatives scheduled meetings and multiple agencies reached out to help.
Ironically, that same week, CNBC ranked Utah the third-best state for business in the previous year, one of many accolades the state had won, and continues winning, for business growth, economic stability, and fiscal management. In one of the most urbanized states in the union at 90.6 percent urbanization, Utah’s rural areas appear as little more than drive-thrus on the way to the breathtaking geology and nearly endless recreation of its national and state parks. Nationwide, people living in these “drive-thrus” struggle through the effects of economic and political factors outside their control, factors that leave large rural swaths of the “Best State for Business,” and the rest of the country, in survival mode.
Rural decline is a large and complex issue that appears to be accelerating. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, during the period between 1994–2010, 38.4 percent of U.S. rural counties lost population; since 2010, over two-thirds of rural counties lost population. This level of decline has far-reaching national and international implications for food and energy production, tourism, and national culture and identity.
The same economic juxtaposition occurring in Utah happens at the municipal level in many recreation amenity-rich western rural towns: the decline of extractive industries, the generational residents’ personal ties to community heritage, the longing for the better, safer, more prosperous past. In an apparent growth paradox, these values are juxtaposed against the ‘discovery’ of outdoor amenities by tourists and transplants, the founding of tourism-based business by transplants ( a business which may thrive but employ few people seasonally and not with a living wage), and the cultural clash between. At its core, the struggle between change and the natural resistance to it.
Challenges in Escalante
Escalante, Utah is the flashpoint for Garfield County’s state of emergency. In September of 1996, Escalante High School had approximately 150 students; 66 attended last year. Half a block of traditional main street-styled buildings in the core of town sits vacant and degrading. Multiple prominent historic homes on main street are boarded up, reminders of a pioneer history fading from memory.
Escalante sits sandwiched between U.S. Forest Service lands and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, surrounded by nationally controlled public lands. Twenty years later, the controversial monument declaration by Bill Clinton still hurts for many residents who curse it for causing the demise of local mineral extraction, closure of the lumber mills, and the curtailment of ranching. The winding, Scenic Byway 12 marks Escalante’s main street as well as the first passing lane for over a dozen miles in both directions. Travelers rifle past plodding RVs on their drive through town, eager to reach regional trails, arches, and slot canyons.
When is decline not decline?
While long-time Escalante residents grapple with many of these factors, many newer residents disagree with the assessment, the conclusions, and the emergency declaration. Several who relocated after the designation of the monument saw opportunities to capitalize on the increasing outdoor recreation and “live where they play.” To them, the monument provided positive, attractive publicity—exactly opposite of what the emergency declaration engendered.
Despite the negative press, to leaders in Escalante, the declaration brought positive results, immediate attention from state executives, action from state agencies, and a greater hope for the future. The town recently built a new medical clinic, remodeled the old theatre on Main Street, hosted a stage of the Tour of Utah cycling race, new commercial developments are in process at both ends of town, and new homes dot the community—not the environment you expect from a community in decline. Still, ever noticeable, the lack of children on the streets and around neighborhoods would perplex the careful observer, evidence of the difference between the new growth and the neighborhoods of Escalante’s yesteryear.
Common Issues, Uncommon Needs
Far from being unique, Escalante’s story joins other western rural towns in transition, from coastal Oregon fishing and timber towns to old mining towns in Northern Idaho and Eastern Montana. For Southwestern Utah, the designation of a large national monument, the Bear’s Ears National Monument, looms over several communities in an echo of Escalante twenty years ago. These amenity-rich areas struggle with common issues: housing, employment, adaptation, and inclusion.
When outsiders ‘discover’ an amenity-rich area, current housing stock transitions to vacation homes or vacation rentals; if new construction occurs, it follows suit. Second-home construction that occurs during transition often happens on the edge of town, pressuring extension of infrastructure. The demand increases area home prices. Second homes have doubled in the past fifteen years in Escalante.
Concurrently, a shift from higher-paying extractive industries to lower-paying tourism-based service sector positions increases barriers to homeownership. Many previous homeowners leave for work elsewhere and, unable to sell their property and not wanting or able to rent it out, allow it to sit idle. Others who inherit properties from deceased parents or real estate speculators may hold onto properties, waiting for a potential larger payout as the area slowly gentrifies. Because of these and other factors, the time between a town’s ‘discovery’ and the decline in the legacy economic base causes significant housing stock degradation.
Potential Solutions: Tap into county, state, and federal affordable housing programs like the following:
- Community Development Block Grants
- Home Investment Partnership Act / Single Family Rehabilitation & Reconstruction Program
- Section 221 and 236 programs
- Rural Housing Services / Rural Development subsidies
- Low Income Housing Tax Credits
- Home Build programs like Utah’s Mutual Self Help Program
- State housing trust funds
- State tax credits
- Locally-owned land leases
Ensure development in outlying areas offsets its own costs with measures like adequate facilities ordinances, strong impact fees, and infrastructure maintenance fund set-asides. Consider annually increasing property taxes on vacant homes. Set up low-interest microloan programs to help with small vital home repairs, like Green River-based Epicenter’s Fix It First program.
As previously discussed, transitional economies have experienced a significant disruption. Some towns have significant labor issues and lack of local labor able (or willing) to fill low-paying service sector positions. Those starting businesses frequently come from outside the area, where capital and experience may be more available—further fueling divisions within the community.
Potential Solutions: Work with local university extension offices, community and technical colleges, or state agency workforce services representatives on workforce training programs. Facilitate entrepreneurship programs or incubator programs from county or state resources. Encourage local labor-ready and entrepreneurial programs at local high schools that can plug local spending holes. Build mentorship programs for business start-ups. Identify compatible industries to grow or possibly attract through programs like the Western Rural Development Center’s Area Sector Analysis Process (ASAP).
“Keep our community small and quiet so it is nice as it always has been,” is a phrase we frequently hear from rural residents. Particularly in declining communities where long-established residents remember the charm of life in simpler times, residents can have considerable resistance to change. This connection and preservation of the past, while a rural virtue, can impede its adaptation into the future. Resistance to any proposed solution that “hasn’t been done before” simply impedes innovation or positive transition.
Another center of resistance is that residents psychologically adapt to negative situations as a daily part of life. Just “rolling with it” can help individuals and communities get through tough times, but collectively this great strength of rural areas can become one of its great weaknesses as issues are ignored.
Potential Solutions: Conduct outreach and inclusion on a community vision and goals, provide community mediums for expression (public chalkboards, graffiti walls with prompts). When addressing change in the community, provide mediums for long-term residents to describe and document how the community was at its peak. Gather data and facts about the situation of the community and proposed changes and help educate community members. Seek to understand the specific concerns of residents resisting changes. Sometimes perception and assumptions distort the fears of residents. Work on explicitly mitigating the core concerns of residents if possible. Distribute resources that identify current rural innovations, particularly positive, balanced perspectives (e.g. Governing, Planetizen, Strong Towns, SaveYourTown, SmallBizSurvival.com, etc.). Connect with other towns in similar situations and learn from each other.
Since both new transplants and legacy residents can feel isolated and resentful of each other, it’s important to begin opening lines of contact between all groups. Beyond basic engagement, leaders need to find opportunities to include transplants as well as long-term residents in action committees and leadership roles. Some personalities and personal agendas will clash; deal with it. Continual nurturing of relationships while working towards a collective community vision takes time and can be discouraging. The results of exclusion are tribalism, mistrust, contention, and community fissures.
Potential Solutions: Reach out to a broad constituency and identify those with leadership ability or capacity. Avoid the “same ten people” syndrome by asking specific individuals to be part of committees or programs.
Planning Principles Applied
In addition to these specific issues, for communities in growth paradox situations, it behooves leaders to apply foundational planning principles. Planning is fundamentally a process of collectively assessing, approaching, discussing, prioritizing, and deciding how to address a variety of community situations. Community planning is the strength of collective will; it is both the foundational root and the culminating fruit of our democratic power. Voting becomes weakly symbolic without the public deliberative processes inherent throughout community planning. When we forget this, we ignore planning’s centrality in our common empowerment of those elected by those governed, binding generations of both to a collective future in all circumstances. When planning hinges entirely on growth, it is merely a brace or barrier to capital investment.
Regardless of a community’s growth situation, these principles will help a community move forward together. Their brevity and generality are intentional to allow for adaptation to local conditions.
First, community leaders must fully assess their situation, collecting the best data available. Estimates by the U.S. Census are infamously inadequate for rural areas and local counts and assessments should be made, whether by staff or students. Identify all potential assets and liabilities. Frequently, we find that the data surprises leaders and long-time community members who think they have their town figured out.
Empowered community members in Escalante have studied local housing conditions, collecting better-than-census data through observation, discussion, and documentation. They also reached out to state agencies, including the Rural Planning Group, to help gather data and assess conditions. They’re also participating in a targeted economic development program to identify compatible industries for cultivation and attraction.
Armed with data, leaders can better help identify issues and cultivate possible responses. Moreover, a rich dedication to engagement empowers stronger community bonds. The goals of engagement should not be to just meet transparency and open meeting laws. Use a range of approaches to reach out broadly, like booths at community events, tapping social networks, small charrettes, contests, graffiti walls, drop-by spaces in empty stores, block parties, neighborhood walkabouts, and door-to-door discussions. The broader the engagement, the deeper the well for ideas, the more powerful the consensus, and the greater likelihood of full support and action.
In Escalante, a typical planning meeting may draw 60 people—significant for a town of under 800 people. While much of this reflects public frustration, the engaged citizenry could be channeled to action as leaders continue working to appreciate and include disparate voices, as people understand the human context of decisions, and as the community continues to collectively mature.
Framing discussions in terms of multiple realistic potential futures enables all parties to understand and begin to accept scenarios they may not like. Simply embracing a single scenario does not make it materialize. Hoping for the best scenarios while planning for all possibilities enables greater community resilience.
Often the most difficult step given the severe resource and time constraints faced by rural leaders, the community must divide needs from wants and where to focus those constrained resources. Focus on what is actionable and under the community’s control, rather than macro-economic or socio-political factors against which leaders can merely advocate, like declining birth rates or disestablishing a national monument. Consensus around priorities will build capacity for action. Without this step, any action will be effectively diluted.
Begin with small, easily attainable steps which can build momentum and positive energy. Beyond a common vision and goals, a key output of the planning process should be specific action steps to achieve those aims. Goals without action are the definition of impossible. Form small, focused committees with the authority for coordinated action. Escalante has already taken small positive steps, thanks to energetic community members who pulled together various funding sources.
Utah’s governor recently sounded a clarion call about the state’s growth paradox. In Governor Herbert’s 2016 State of the State address, after discussing the significant job growth and national recognition as the most fundamentally sound economy in the U.S., he said, “Unfortunately, this is not the case in some of the rural areas of our state...To Utahan’s everywhere... I pledge to you that we will not rest until all 29 counties and all 245 cities and towns in our state are full participants in Utah’s tremendous economic success.” Through applying fundamental planning principles, and learning from the experience in other towns, rural communities may be able to make a smoother transition to a better future.
About the Rural Planning Group
Created in late 2013, the Rural Planning Group (RPG) is a creation of the State of Utah’s Community Impact Fund Board (CIB). The CIB obtains funding from mineral lease royalties on extractive industries operating on federal lands. These funds are collected by the federal government and then returned to the state, the State returns a portion to CIB for use in rural communities. The CIB disburses this funding to communities that are affected by mineral resource development on federal lands. RPG enhances the use of these funds by promoting planning and management best practices in rural communities. RPG accomplishes this through providing planning assistance for Utah’s rural communities, facilitating communication and coordination between key stakeholders, offering planning and technical assistance, and developing and delivering training, tools, and resources. By implementing these services, RPG provides rural communities with tools needed to build rural communities which are self-reliant, self-determined, and prepared for the future to which they aspire. Visit http://ruralplanning.org/
Paul Moberly is a Consultant with Utah's Rural Planning Group, a program of Utah Housing and Community Development, part of the Utah Department of Workforce Services. With a background in international business and marketing communications, Paul focuses on community and economic development, quantitative data analysis and community design. A long-time student of rural issues, he's consulted with rural towns throughout upstate New York, the Adirondacks, and Utah and has studied rural decline during the past decade throughout the Northeast and Northwest. He holds a Masters in Regional Planning from Cornell University, and a community development-focused Masters in Education from Boise State University.
Kyle Slaughter is a Consultant with Utah's Rural Planning Group, a program of Utah Housing and Community Development, part of the Utah Department of Workforce Services. While he's consulted towns in rural Utah for three years, Kyle background is in public administration and private sector consulting. Adept at adapting technical concepts for general audiences, he's drafted studies and guides on small town code enforcement, airport zoning, annexation, and the coal and oil industries in Utah, presenting at professional and technical conferences in and outside of Utah on these and other topics. He holds an Masters in Public Administration from Brigham Young University and plans to open a buffalo ranch in the western U.S.
- Garfield County Commission Meeting, June 22, 2015
- McKellar, K. (2015). Garfield County issues state of emergency after declining school enrollment. KSL.com. 6/22/2015. Retrieved from: http://www.ksl.com/?sid=35194908&nid=148
- Deseret News Editorial. (2015). In our opinion: Utah’s tale of 2 economies—rural cities, counties needing state attention. Deseret News. July 8, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865632150/Utahs-tale-of-2-economies-2-rural-cities-counties-needing-state-attention.html
- U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Utah: 2010, Population and Housing Unit Counts, CPH-2-46. Utah U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/cph-2-46.pdf.
- Henderson, T. (2015). States Try to County Rural Flight. Pew Charitable Trusts, August 20, 2015, Retrieved from: http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2015/08/20/states-try-to-counter-rural-flight.
- Herbert, G. (2016). 2016 State of the State Address. January 27, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.utah.gov/governor/docs/stateofstate/2016StateoftheStateAddress.pdf.
Published February 2017