The first year of the Great Recession was pretty easy on Ogden. For most of 2008, unemployment wavered around 5 percent of the labor force, pretty good for Utah’s seventh-largest city, which had seen far higher rates of joblessness earlier in the decade.
That changed in December, when the jobless rate exploded. In just 30 days, it jumped to 11 percent from 5.3 percent in November.
Thus began an extraordinarily difficult time for Ogden. Over the next two years, the jobless rate averaged above 10 percent. For a year it was 11 percent or higher. And in July and August 2009, after the recession officially ended, the unemployment reached 12.5 percent — highest of any city in Utah with a population of 25,000 or more.
Yet the severity of Ogden’s labor situation stood in stark contrast to its fruitful efforts to recruit new businesses and revitalize the city’s crumbling core. Between 2003 and last year, Ogden added 9,000 new jobs and injected new life into downtown, said former Mayor Matthew Godfrey, citing U.S. Labor Department figures. By some measures, the city has enjoyed so much progress that in June Forbes magazine said Ogden was the sixth-best metro area in the U.S. for business and careers. Forbes also has lauded the community as one of America’s “most livable” and “best performing” cities. 24/7 Wall Street, an online business newsletter, says Ogden is one of a handful of U.S. cities with a “booming” manufacturing sector.
“I think it’s a very different town today than it was 12 years ago,” said Godfrey, who was elected mayor in 2000 at the age of 29. “We have an economic vision. We have an economic base. We have a story to tell and a path forward.”
But there’s that other story about Ogden’s recent past, the one set between 2007 and 2011, when the city lost 6,000 jobs and the number of people counted by the Labor Department as unemployed and actively looking for work almost doubled. Even today, after almost three years of declining unemployment, 8.3 percent of Ogden’s labor force is without work, although that figure probably is understated. It doesn’t account for people who have given up finding a job. By contrast, Utah’s official jobless rate is 6 percent, as is Salt Lake City’s.
No recovery here • Leave downtown and go west on 24th Street, across a 3,000-foot-long bridge spanning Union Pacific’s largely silent rail yard, and the economic momentum that Godfrey says has rescued Ogden isn’t so apparent.
“We are still a long ways from recovery. Our numbers are continuing to increase,” said Marcie Valdez, director of Northern Utah Catholic Community Services, which last month provided food assistance to 2,300 households. Three years earlier, the number was 1,200.
“One thing we have noticed over the last two or three years are people who have never had to ask for assistance before — younger families who haven’t been in that situation and are facing difficulties due to loss of employment or a decrease in wages,” Valdez said. “Everything is so expensive. The price of gas has gone through the roof. Prices at the grocery store are higher. So people who were getting by are no longer getting by.”
The people who lean on Catholic Community Services for food, rent assistance or help paying utility bills seem to cut across a significant swath of Ogden’s population. In the center’s parking lot on F Avenue last week, dozens of families — white, black, Latino, poor and clearly middle-class — were unloading food from grocery carts into their cars. Inside the building, dozens more waited their turn to see a counselor, while others picked food items from boxes and shelves.
Alice Butler, 71, a retired Internal Revenue Service employee who was at the center with her unemployed daughter, Glee Lundstedt, 48, hasn’t seen much evidence of recovery in Ogden’s labor market.
“It’s not improving at a very fast rate, let’s put it that way,” said Butler, to which Lundstedt added, pointing across the room: “If you look at that wall (of job announcements), yeah, there are jobs, but are they the kind of jobs I could be hired for? No.”
Lundstedt has been out of work for close to 18 months after she was laid off by Head Start, which she said could longer afford to pay her. The job wasn’t eliminated; it was filled by a volunteer. She would like to work at one of the area’s manufacturing companies, but many of those jobs were eliminated during the recession. Besides, the side effects of chemotherapy treatments for her breast cancer have damaged the nerves in her feet, making it painful to stand.
A clerical job would allow her to work in a chair, Lundstedt said. But, again, cancer has limited that option. The treatments that apparently have put the disease in remission have damaged her smile. “Not to have any teeth, who would want to look at you?” she asked.
Good jobs • There are jobs to be had in Ogden, and good ones. Since 2006, 13 companies have created more than 1,400 positions inside the city limits and have pledged almost 5,000 more, according to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), which has authorized tax breaks for the companies if the jobs become actual fact.
Just last month, Atlanta-based hardware retailer Home Depot opened a national customer service and sales center at 801 Depot Drive. The center already employs close to 300 people. Another 180 people are set to start training this month and in October. Home Depot expects to have created a total of 691 jobs by 2015, with 181 of them paying at least 125 percent of the average Weber County wage. The average weekly wage in the county was $642 last year, according to the Labor Department. Adding 25 percent would bring the weekly wage to $802.50, or $41,730 a year. Although that may seem low, it’s about the same as the median county household income, which includes contributions from all workers in the same household.
But against this backdrop, layoffs persist in Ogden and across northern Utah. And economists at the state Department of Workforce Services point out that a person is counted as unemployed according to where he lives, not according to the location of his job. Close to 50 percent of Weber County’s workforce typically commutes to jobs in other counties. Aerospace giant Alliant Techsystems (ATK), for example, has laid off almost 4,800 Utahns, mostly in Box Elder County. But many ATK employees probably lived in Ogden, and although it’s not clear what effect the layoffs may have had on the city’s unemployment rate, it raises the possibility that the damage of so much joblessness in Ogden may have been masked because many of the layoffs were at jobs outside the city.
“I don’t have any way of knowing,” said Godfrey, who left office in January to start an economic development consulting business. “All I know is, if you have that high of an unemployment rate, you would have widespread retail and others that were shutting down, and that didn’t happen. We didn’t see the secondary effects of truly widespread unemployment.
“You go and look at other communities that had 12 percent unemployment, and there were all kinds of aftershocks, and we just didn’t see it. In fact, we saw growth.
There is still a lot that needs to be done. [But] downtown is healthy again. People from the region are coming to to be entertained, and to some degree to shop, and that’s a complete change from where we were.”
Godfrey goes so far as to say that Ogden was better off during the worst of the recession than it was in the 1990s, when he decided to run for mayor. The city’s railroad-based economy had petered out. Thiokol, which later was bought by ATK, moved out of a big office in downtown Ogden. Two key retailers, Nordstrom and JCPenney, had already left the city, and others were soon to follow. The city, Godfrey said, was on an ominous downward spiral.
“It was by far way worse. There’s no comparison. If you ask the average person on the street, they would all say the same thing.”
Recruiting success • The key to Ogden’s revival — at least where there was a revival — was to chase new jobs. The city is now known for the success it’s had recruiting outdoor products companies. “Today, nine sporting-good companies and a dozen outdoor brands call Ogden home, including Rossignol, Salomon, Atomic, Scott USA, Descente and others,” according to an Outdoor Industry Association study of the city, which the retailer group said is the “nation’s newest hotspot for high-adventure outdoor recreation.”
There have been notable successes in other industrial sectors. Among the employers that GOED has helped bring or expand in Ogden are a medical device maker, an aerospace company, an aviation business and several food manufacturers. In June, the city received a $1 million grant from the federal government to fund a lab that will train workers and provide space for business startups in the bustling field of software applications for smartphones and tablets. The lab is expected to create 750 jobs over the next 10 years.
“My observation is how much [Ogden] has improved,” said Crystal Call Maggelet, chairwoman of FJ Management Inc., formerly known as truck stop giant Flying J. “It feels like it’s much better now than it was [three years ago], not that I felt it was dire in 2009. From our perspective, it’s very alive.”
But Maggelet’s sense of Ogden as a community that has transformed itself from a forlorn railroad town to a modern, diverse city isn’t shared by everyone
“The [labor] market is tough. There’s nothing happening right now,” said John Hunt, a 56-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran who lost his job at a cookie plant almost two years ago.
Hunt walks with a cane because of a combat injury. After being laid off, he went to school to become a computer technician. Upon graduation, he couldn’t find a job in that field. So he’s planning to go back to school again, this time to study medical billing.
“It’s very tough,” he said.
Rising tide • Godfrey acknowledges Ogden has a long way to go. Latinos make up 30 percent of the city’s population, a ratio in Utah second only to West Valley City. Many, although not all, are poor. Twenty-one percent of the city’s population lives below the U.S. poverty level, a ratio that is twice that of Utah. Despite what Godfrey calls a “brain gain” that followed the arrival of new outside employers, Ogden still has proportionately fewer high school and college graduates than the rest of the state, according to U.S. Census data.
Still, he argues, the city’s jobs strategy has worked. Educated people are moving into the community. Many of the jobs that have been created by companies recruited to the city pay what he said are “liveable” wages, provide health and retirement benefits, and offer the prospect of long-term employment.
“We wanted to grow the economy and create more disposable income for people. We believed in the rising-tide theory, and it worked. It was hard. It took a long time to get going. We had to create a new vision for our town. But it worked.”