3 ideas picked for $1M challenge to boost Utahns' income: Renting out extra space, a transportation app and a ‘strike force’ for coal country

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Members of the Utah Coal Country Srike Team and Natalie Gochnour, center, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute share a laugh with Carbon County commissioner Casey Hopes, a University of Utah alum who seized the moment to express his hopes of a PAC12 football championship after the team was awarded as one of three team finalists in American Dream Ideas Challenge, announced Nov. 28, 2018 on the campus of University of Utah. Each team will receive $30,000 to use in refining its idea and present its idea for the national round of competition. University of Utah's advisory board, including President Ruth Watkins and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, selected the finalists. The statewide competition contained 152 entries, all vying for the best idea of how to boost Utahns' net income for 10,000 of the stateÕs middle-class households by 10 percent by 2020 by cutting transportation costs, leveraging unused storage space and revitalizing economically depressed areas of the state.

Three ambitious proposals — a peer-to-peer service for storage rentals, an app to coordinate modes of public transportation, and a drive to revitalize Utah’s coal country — are the Utah nominees in a national competition for ideas to boost America’s middle class.

The nominees, chosen from 152 proposals from around the state, were announced Wednesday at the University of Utah as part of the American Dream Ideas Challenge — which will give $1 million each to the best ideas that can raise the net incomes of 10,000 middle-class households by 10 percent by 2020.

The three nominees each will receive $30,000 and two months to refine their proposals, to pitch them at the national finals, Jan. 28-29 in Phoenix. Schmidt Futures — a philanthropic group founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy — is expected to give up to $1 million each to four or five winning proposals, said Courtney McBeth, the U.’s project director and special assistant to U. President Ruth V. Watkins.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox, who co-chaired the selection committee with Watkins, said he was excited that so many proposals were generated by government, academic, nonprofit and for-profit groups.

“The ideas that came forward are going to change Utah for many years to come,” Cox said.

The University of Utah is one of four anchor institutions submitting nominees to the competition. The other three are Arizona State University, Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The three nominees are:

Neighbor, an online service that has been called “Airbnb for stuff,” matching people with spare room with people who need to rent storage space. The rentals cost less than traditional self-storage, and provide a monthly check to those renting out space.

Neighbor, based in Lehi and launched a year ago, is already operating in 36 states, said founder/CEO Joseph Woodbury. In Utah alone, nearly 5,000 renters are using the service.

Woodbury said he heard about the American Dream Ideas Challenge’s goal of raising incomes on 10,000 households, and “we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re already doing this.’”

Renters, he said, save between $500 and $2,000 a year on storage, while property owners can earn from $1,000 to $15,000 a year just for having somebody’s stuff sit in an unused basement or backyard lot.

The company aims to develop a mobile app to make the service more accessible, and to set up insurance to protect both renters and property owners.

• Mobility as a Service (MaaS), a joint effort of the Utah Transit Authority, Utah Department of Transportation and Salt Lake City to coordinate all forms of public transportation — green bikes, rental scooters, buses, TRAX and ride-sharing — in a one-stop app.

The idea is to make it feasible for households to own one less automobile, reducing a major income drain, said Blake Perez, special projects analyst for Salt Lake City’s transportation division.

“What we hear a lot is, ‘I’d take the bus, but don’t know how to get to the bus stop,’” Perez said. “We would like to see some dynamic route planning, where it says, ‘OK, you can walk out your front door and there’s a Lime scooter right there. You can take that to the bus stop. You take the bus to this station, and there’ll be a Lyft waiting for you there to take you to your final destination.’”

The $30,000 grant will help developers create a digital platform, line up partnerships, and design the marketing to “give it a name, give it some colors, give it a logo,” Perez said.

• Utah Coal Country Strike Team, a public/private partnership to help revitalize economies in Carbon and Emery counties, where coal production has decreased sharply in recent years, said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the U.’s Eccles School of Business.

“When people think of coal-disadvantaged areas, they often think of Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky,” Gochnour said. But Utah’s coal production has dropped 41 percent since 2001. “This has left the people of Carbon and Emery counties in a world of hurt.”

The strike force envisions a four-pronged approach that includes a “Silicon Slopes East” to attract technology companies, a “Hearth and Home” program to renovate aging houses, a “Red Rocks Gateway” to promote tourism industries on the way to San Rafael Swell, and improved economic incentives for rural residents.

The proposal, Gochnour said, is “much like a Navy SEAL strike team [that will] go to Carbon and Emery counties and help them in four areas, because we don’t think one intervention can get to a 10 percent increase in household income for 10,000 households.”