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.Next Page >
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