Utah's sunny economy has not shone in Carbon County lately
In 1983, the snowfall in the mountains around the Wasatch Front was so heavy that Salt Lake City had to build a canal of sandbags down State Street to carry away the spring runoff that the flooded streams couldn't handle.
Media coverage of the urban event was misinterpreted that summer by potential tourists. They saw the reports, and assumed the whole state was under water. Tourism was down for that year.
That same kind of trend concerning information from the Beehive State is going on around the country and even in certain parts of Utah now, but the news instead is about economic well being and job growth in the state. Because of reports like the one that was released by the United States Chamber of Commerce in April touting Utah as being one of the fastest growing and healthy states, people everywhere think it is true of the entire state.
However, it's not. Many rural areas are not benefiting from the substantial growth and hot economics of what is largely a Wasatch Front, Washington County and Uintah Basin phenomenon. And it is particularly not true in Carbon County.
While the unemployment rate as of April for Carbon County was lower than the national average (7 percent verses 7.7 percent ) it was far from the Utah average of 4.9 percent (U.S. Department of Labor), the second best in the nation. North Dakota is at 3.3 percent.
As anyone in the area knows, much of Carbon's economy is based on mining. There was a time in Utah when mining, both hard rock and coal, accounted for up to 25 percent of the state's employment. While Carbon has remained very dependent on taking coal out of the ground, the rest of the state has changed. According to the latest report from the Governor's Office of Management and Budget, mining employment now only makes up one percent of the total jobs in the state. And as for change overall in numbers, it hasn't increased or decreased in the last year.
But that has not been true for Carbon County. In late 2008 around 1,500 people were directly involved in mining coal in Carbon County. Today it is only around 700. A report by the Utah Division of Workforce Services points this out succinctly. From December 2011 to December 2012, mining jobs in the county dropped by 28.9 percent.
During that time, all job sectors in the county declined except for professional business services and education/health/social services employment. Each of these sectors grew by between two and three percent.
These downward figures are reflected in other data that has been reported too. Total permitted construction values in the county were down 16.5 percent last year and overall sales in the area also declined 7.5 percent.
The coal industry in Carbon County has faced ups and downs all through its existence. Some say that it will come back again, while others say things in the economy have changed and that the world will never be using coal in the amount they utilized in the past for industry and power generation.
The fact is these are changing times and natural gas is constantly gaining on coal as a principal source of power generation, which today is the biggest use of coal resources.
The local economy has depended on coal for over 100 years. And during that time, people have talked a great deal about diversification of the economy, particularly in the last three decades.
Will it ever happen? Can it even happen? And what part does the local population hold in that diversification in terms of purchasing, education, innovation and infrastructure?
Those are the questions we will try to answer in this series of articles about where Carbon County is headed in the next few years.
(Editors note: This is the first in a series of four articles concerning the economy of Carbon County and what the future may hold).