Commentary: Two small Utah towns among those with big-time potential for economic growth

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Houses at Summit Park near the top of Parley's Canyon get a dusting of snow.

Dotting a map of the United States – in the Heartland and beyond – are 531 small towns. While consumer marketers and politicians call them Main Street, U.S.A, for economists and researchers, well, we call them micropolitan areas.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we have researched, reviewed and ranked the 531 micropolitan statistical areas nationwide – which have one or more counties with at least one city with more than 10,000 but less than 50,000 in population – using a new, comprehensive index to measure the vitality and viability of these small towns’ economic standing.

While Pecos, Texas, took the top spot, Utah boasts two micropolitan areas – Summit Park and Heber City – ranking second and fourth respectively.

What we’ve learned is telling, both in the short and the long-term: Small-town America has big-time potential for economic renewal and revival.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, there was a fissure in economic performance across the United States based on the size of a place. Between 2010 and 2017, large metropolitan areas witnessed job growth of 8.7 percent; medium-sized metropolitan areas 4.9 percent; and small metropolitan areas 2.3 percent. Meanwhile, micropolitan areas lost 0.7 percent of their employment over this period, which accounted for the loss of more than 500,000 of jobs.

As Chinese manufacturing imports surged, with their entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, micropolitans witnessed the devastation of closed factories, lost jobs and rising hopelessness. Even now, America’s micropolitans could be at further risk and negatively impacted by retaliatory tariffs imposed by the Chinese government in response to President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported Chinese goods.

As we researched the 531 micropolitans, one question was top of mind: How can these communities chart a course to improve their economic performance in the future? As most small towns in America would understand, learn from and lean on your neighbors for best practices and apply those locally.

The Most Dynamic Micropolitan Index is performance-based, with metrics such as job growth, wage and income gains, and a new metric, the proportion of total jobs at young firms. This measure captures which communities are creating meaningful jobs for their residents and those that might desire to in-migrate. It provides information on the ability of entrepreneurs to start new businesses and scale them —critical for future job and wage gains.

The research’s findings also conclude that America’s economically successful micropolitans have four key traits that influenced economic growth: travel, tourism and recreation; professional services; culture of entrepreneurship; and research universities and four-year colleges. In addition, each of these micropolitan communities has carved out a specialized niche within these categories for themselves and are focused on economic diversification.

Summit Park has promoted professional and technical jobs such as research, accounting and engineering. Heber City is targeting software development and information technology, professional services, health care and advanced manufacturing. Further, Heber City’s Small Business Development Center Utah Valley University campus and Business Resource Center provide entrepreneurial support and mentoring.

Micropolitans such as Heber City and Summit Park must survey their assets and determine the best way to leverage them and fill gaps. Leveraging tools, such as Opportunity Zone designations from the federal government and patterning economic development efforts after fellow micropolitan areas, is a strong starting point and could serve as a catalyst for economic growth.

While Main Street, U.S.A. may have its own unique attributes, in the 531 micropolitans that dot a map of the United States, one thing is for certain, small-town America has big-time potential.

Ross DeVol is a Fellow at the Walton Family Foundation

Ross DeVol is a fellow at the Walton Family Foundation.