This Utah county ‘hit the panic button’ when a big employer left. Here’s what happened next.

Officials in the rural Utah area are hopeful they can diversity the historically ‘boom and bust’ economy

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tammy Pearson, Beaver County Commissioner serving her third term in office and a 40-year resident of the county, stands for a portrait by the county’s sole stoplight at the intersection of Center Street and Main on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

Beaver • For one busy October weekend, hotels in Beaver County filled to near capacity, campsites were fully booked for weeks, and diners packed restaurants.

The occasion was the Oct. 14 annular solar eclipse — and Beaver County sat on the path of full annularity, where the moon passed directly in front of the sun and created a “ring of fire” for several minutes.

The influx of tourists was “incredible,” said Jen Wakeland, the county’s strategic development director. “We were thrilled to have respectful and kind visitors.”

Visitors to this part of southwestern Utah might not have known that 16 months earlier, the largely agricultural Beaver County feared an economic collapse. Smithfield Foods, which once employed a quarter of the county’s workers, announced it would reduce its operations there by up to 70%. The pork producer had just closed the California plant that processed hogs raised in Utah.

The county declared a state of emergency after Smithfield’s announcement. “We kind of hit the panic button,” said County Commissioner Tammy Pearson. “The impact to a small community, [where] that’s your largest employer, that’s huge.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jen Wakeland, Beaver County's strategic development director, expresses optimism for new economic projects coming to the area on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in the wake of 2022’s Smithfield plant shutdown.

Since then, a lot has happened:

• The Utah Inland Port Authority approved a new project in the county, something Wakeland and Pearson fought hard to land.

• Fervo Energy got the OK to drill 29 new geothermal wells, building on a pre-existing hotbed of energy 10 miles outside of Milford, and paving the way for new energy jobs.

• Eclipse tourism, based on Wakeland’s early estimates, might have infused around $200,000 into the area’s economy — and showed that the county, a stopover to some of Utah’s well-known public lands, has untapped tourism potential.

The county may not feel the effects of those endeavors as immediately as it did sudden job cuts, but county officials say they have hope. Declaring an emergency, Pearson said, opened other funding streams, and put the county “on the radar” for more diverse — and possibly more sustainable — industries.

Wakeland said her job is to bring together the many pieces of the economic puzzle — tourism, the port project, and such things as increased broadband capacity to connect Beaver County to the world — to promote “slow, sustainable growth.”

“Boom and bust”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Old kilns in the former mining town of Frisco at the foot of the San Francisco Mountains in Beaver County has been relegated to a ghost town with only a few structures remaining, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

Frisco, about 45 minutes northwest of Beaver, was once a bustling mining community, home to more than 6,000 people, nearly double Beaver’s population today. According to lore, it was violent and lawless — and, Wakeland said, vibrant.

“All that’s left there is ruins,” Wakeland said. “And a little graveyard for the babies that didn’t survive living out in the plains.”

What were once houses and saloons are now crumbling stone and decaying wood buildings. Brick beehive-shaped charcoal kilns have succumbed to nearly a century of neglect.

One of Frisco’s biggest mines collapsed in 1885, marking the beginning of the town’s end. The last residents left or died by 1929.

Frisco, Wakeland said, is “my point of reference,” a ghost town that symbolizes the dangers of relying on a single industry.

“I don’t want Frisco to be the tale of Milford, of Minersville, of Beaver, of Manderfield,” Wakeland said. “It would be heartbreaking to me to see these communities, with such a robust cultural heritage here, disappear overnight.”

Beaver County’s economy has long been “boom or bust,” Wakeland said. It relied on mineral extraction, until the mines collapsed or couldn’t produce at scale. It relied on transportation; Milford once had 160 railroad employees but now has 40, according to Nolan Davis, the town’s mayor. And it has relied on agriculture — which works until corporations like Smithfield, which dominate the industry and its jobs, takes those jobs away.

“Smithfield … was a big deal,” said Pearson, who has served as a county commissioner for 8 years. Pearson said the hog farm brought people back to Beaver County who had left as teenagers, including Beaver City Mayor Matt Robinson. (Robinson still works for Smithfield, and declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“It provided long-term sustainability in the economic world,” Pearson said. “Then, without any warning at all, they made their announcement that they were going to downsize 70%.”

A spokesperson for Smithfield did not say how many people were affected, but said in an email to The Tribune that roughly 40% of the company’s jobs in Beaver County were eliminated. A “large portion” of employees transferred to other jobs in the company, in other places, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the company has no plans to bring jobs back to Utah, adding that it is “always exploring opportunities to improve overall business performance.”

State and county officials have tried to find ways to save the Smithfileld jobs. The state suggested building its own hog processing plant, using state money and federal COVID relief funds. No such plant has materialized, but another inland port project, Juab County’s AgriPark, could one day house animal processing plants, a spokesperson for Utah Department of Agriculture and Food said.

The county is still sorting out the effects of Smithfield’s departure.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A billboard welcomes people to Beaver in Southern Utah on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

The first wave, Pearson said, hit within three months of the announcement, when the employees who weren’t laid off were “just shipped right out.” Many were longtime Smithfield employees who went where the company sent them — first to Utah, now somewhere else. Those are people, Pearson said, who are no longer shopping locally or trying to plant roots.

For now, Beaver County’s economy at large is stable, she said. The county is debt-free, except for a zero-interest loan it took to renovate Beaver City’s historic courthouse (now a museum). This year’s operating budget is projecting net revenue between $133,000 and $382,000.

Residents felt the crunch of Smithfield leaving, Pearson said. The jobs that disappeared were held by locals, and anxiety was high last summer, Pearson and Wakefield said. (Former Smithfield employees reached by The Tribune declined to be interviewed.) The county held job fairs to help locals find new employment. Some people started their own businesses; one launched an online boutique and is working odd jobs around the county.

The cuts didn’t hit the Beaver County School District as hard as officials had feared. The district, which relies on enrollment numbers to determine state funding, had 35 fewer students this year compared with last year, and 54 fewer students than in 2021. That decline is a bit sharper than the county has seen in recent years, said Superintendent David Long, but it wasn’t out of line with projections, which are based on several factors — including an aging population and a declining birth rate statewide.

“There was no huge hit last year from job losses,” Long said, adding that most of the workers who left town were single.

Still, while alfalfa and livestock remain some of the county’s main exports, its “biggest export,” Wakeland and Pearson have repeated in public meetings and interviews, is its kids. Young people, they have said, have been driven out by a lack of opportunity; if they leave, for college or for a higher-paying job, they seldom return.

Pearson, who was raised one county over in Millard County, married a Beaver County “kid” 40 years ago who stayed to run his family’s farm. The Pearsons now raise hundreds of cows, and grow corn and grain. Their kids have joined the family business or pieced together work in farming and construction. One of Pearson’s sons works on the family farm and, on his own, raises 20,000 pheasants, which he sells to game ranches.

Such homegrown success stories, though, are increasingly rare, Pearson said.

“Our most precious, precious resource is our kids, and that’s our biggest export, too,” Pearson said. “Because we don’t have any way of keeping them here. There’s no sustainable jobs.”

Road to stability

The antidote to a “boom and bust” economy is a diverse one, said Wakeland, who moved to Beaver just after the Smithfield shutdown.

Recent developments are working to push Beaver County in that direction, she said, even if the tangible impacts will take time to materialize.

Wakeland cited the Mineral Mountains Utah Inland Port as a project that plays to the county’s strengths, building on things the county already has done well — agriculture, transportation, mineral extraction — while adding new industries that honor the county’s heritage and culture.

The project, according to the plan, would be built in four separate zones — each acting as fueling and logistics hubs, agriculture and agricultural technology centers and “emerging industry” base camps. The port is designed to attract businesses that work in renewable energy, agriculture and ag tech, advanced manufacturing, mining, aerospace, warehousing and distribution, and research and development.

The plan may even allow for a local pork processing plant, which could bring Smithfield jobs back, Wakeland said. It’s not a guarantee, she said, but it’s a hope.

Officials also are optimistic about Fervo Energy’s geothermal mine, which broke ground on Sept. 25. The mine is projected to create around 6,600 temporary jobs during construction, and 161 permanent, full-time jobs once the mine is running in the next 3-to-5 years, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Beaver County, Wakeland said, doesn’t have the housing supply or room in its schools to handle thousands of temporary workers all at once. “Just 200 jobs overnight would trample us, right?” Wakeland said.

However, Fervo has been good about recruiting local workers, she said, and she’s confident the county will have time to prepare for any new permanent residents. “I look at 2026 to 2028, and I’m like, ‘heck yeah, we can do that,’” she said. “Slow, sustainable, small, incremental growth is what we do best.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Smithfield feed mill in Beaver County is pictured on Thursday, Ot. 5, 2023. The rural county in Southern Utah lost seventy percent of its jobs in the wake of last summer’s plant shutdown, leading the county to declare a financial emergency.

Fervo and the inland port could be “a big shot in the arm” for Beaver County schools, Long said, adding he’s hopeful both projects will create jobs that attract younger people with families.

Beaver County’s population has grown steadily in recent years, to just over 7,000 residents — but, Long said, school enrollment hasn’t kept pace. In fact, he said, it’s hardly changed since Long’s grandfather attended Beaver County High School.

“We’ve hovered at 1,500 [students] for over 100 years now,” Long said.

Long said the district has set aside money for more classrooms and campuses, if necessary — the first time he’s made such plans in his time as a county school official. Growth, Long said, “isn’t new to me. But it’s definitely new to Beaver County.”

The tourism boost

The other big economic opportunity, Wakeland said, is tourism.

This summer, the county built a new National Interscholastic Cycling Association trail, and hosted a student mountain-bike race that brought 4,500 visitors to a town that, according to 2021 census data, has 3,500 residents. “So we effectively doubled,” Wakeland said.

Sometimes people hop off Interstate 15 in Beaver to buy locally made cheese and ice cream at The Creamery. The single-stoplight town has just one coffee shop, North Creek Espresso, a drive-thru known for “spudnuts” (doughnuts made with potato flour) and, of course, coffee.

Some go skiing at Eagle Point Resort, about 20 minutes east of town, where people can ski for $60 a day or $600 a season.

Still, as a gateway to such places as Bryce Canyon National Park, Beaver County is an oft-overlooked destination.

“I call it the best-kept secret in the state,” Long said.

Neither Wakeland nor Pearson want Beaver County to become the next Park City or Moab or St. George. They want to attract visitors — and residents — who value the county’s rural, small-town ethic and are willing to preserve it.

“You have to be very thoughtful,” Wakeland said, “and you have to be cautious because you can trample a place real quick. And we don’t want to do that. … We’re not for everybody, but we’re right for who we’re right for.”

Milford, 30 miles west of Beaver and home of Smithfield’s local headquarters, recently celebrated its 150th anniversary — and the town of roughly 1,500 had its heritage on full display.

A newly renovated heritage town park offers an interactive tour of the town’s industry, featuring old mining cars, a replica train stop, and plaques commemorating the Spanish explorers who traveled through there.

One block over on Main Street, the historic Hotel Milford, built in 1913, still looms large. Across the street, affixed to the side of a sun-bleached concrete building, a poster honors 150 years of the town’s endurance: “We were. We are. We will be.”

“The thing about us is: We don’t want to leave,” Pearson said. “And so, we’ve got to figure something out. I’ve always said, our people here are very resilient.”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.