Even from deep in the coronavirus hole, Utahns still can see splendor.
We live in what is arguably the most beautiful state in the Union, and Americans’ desire to live, work and play in that beauty has never been more apparent.
And how does Utah’s legendarily productive citizenry interact with that natural beauty? Through the outdoor industry, in all of its manifestations: tourism, outdoor sports events and outdoor products manufacturing. It’s where the Beehive meets the Olympic flame.
Utah’s natural fit for the industry was the genesis for attracting the largest convention we’ve ever had. The twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer show was a powerhouse that brought nearly $50 million annually and filled most hotel rooms from Ogden to Provo.
It’s been two years since the show ran off to Denver because Utah’s political establishment somehow decided there was more money in crushing national monuments than encouraging people to enjoy them. That decision looked wrong then and looks worse now.
Outdoor Retailer is about more than a couple of long weekends of bustling conventioneers. It’s about nurturing what has become an enviable asset in this country: a manufacturing sector. With so much manufacturing being offshored, outdoor products made in Utah are an important exception, providing higher paying jobs than service industries generally offer.
The encouragement of manufacturing industries got shorted in the Inland Port business plan released this week. After earlier promises that the port would only succeed if it stimulated more manufacturing, the port’s drivers are now more focused on promoting logistical advantages.
That’s unfortunate. Utah’s outdoor products are already shipped worldwide, and strengthening both supply chains and distribution networks to encourage more Utah manufacturing should be the port’s highest purpose, not a hoped-for side effect.
Meanwhile, the idea that mineral extraction is the best use of Utah’s public lands has never looked less viable. Even with oil prices crawling back from near zero, drilling wells near Utah’s scenic wonders simply isn’t going to happen. Oil is too easy to get elsewhere. We have years of oil and gas production left from existing wells, but there is no oil or coal renaissance coming.
Instead, support for the outdoor products industry should be an essential part of rural Utah’s development. Even those places that aren’t sitting next to national parks still have what's needed to encourage manufacturing. Utah tax rates and energy prices are business assets the whole state can tap.
Would Outdoor Retailer ever return? It may be more possible than their quick exit suggests. There’s no question their costs are higher in Denver, where they’re also farther from the mountains and lakes where product demos take place. And now Salt Lake County is building the convention center hotel that was said to be necessary.
Utah leaders should make another run at them, but they’ll have to show the environmental maturity to pull it off. It’s time to shake off the extremism and recognize how the state’s unique natural assets can help feed and educate Utah’s families. There’s more than silicon in our slopes.