The focus on economic development in Weber County
BY JENNY GOLDSBERRY
Commissioner Gage Froerer comes from a long line of REALTORS®. For four generations his family “peddled dirt” as he likes to say. His forefathers started the business in Weber County in 1900. Today, he’s focused on a different type of real estate: the kind that focuses on economic growth for the entire county.
Together with Economic Development Director Stephanie Russell and Northern Utah Economic Alliance President Chris Roybal, Gage stimulates the economy in Weber County. Before their partnership, counties often competed with other counties for businesses’ attention, vying to tie them down to real estate within their boundaries. However, it wasn’t effective or even beneficial for the locals. At the end of the day, companies don’t care about boundaries, but convenience and costs. Enter Chris, whose new organization encompasses Weber and Davis. He’s seen how companies care more about where their labor pool is coming from over county lines.
“The workforce we have here is amazing,” Stephanie said. Now, her job is to make sure the talented workforce stays. She looks at the northern Utah region with a holistic approach, examining the assets and demographics to build quality of life.
Every day, 100,000 people commute out of Weber and Davis County to their various jobs along the Wasatch Front. In return, about 50,000 people commute into the same region from elsewhere.
This commute might not seem like much now, but in 10 years it could take an hour or more just to get to Salt Lake. Since it is the capital, work travel to Salt Lake City will never be completely eliminated, but the goal is to keep more skilled workers in the county. A short commute greatly contributes to quality of life. Less time on the road means less road rage, boredom, pollution, etc.
When the Ogden Defense Depot was transformed into the Business Depot, local officials anticipated it would take years for companies to fill up all the vacancies. At capacity, BDO will have about 15 million square feet of space. Its growth in the last 5 years has escalated significantly over the previous 15. Now the space is nearly capped out, with only one to two million square feet remaining. It’s proof that there is demand for northern Utah’s workforce, and companies are willing to settle here.
Yet, the companies settling here aren’t only new. Gage used to hate to see local funds go to outside companies when his family’s company had been around since 1900. Local companies need just as much help expanding and staying in the region. In fact, this partnership is so committed to small local businesses that they distributed $45 million to 116 companies. The average payout was $15,000. These payouts came from American Rescue and CARE funds. While other cities took the opportunity to put that into their funds, northern Utah decided to put it first in small business.
Their latest project is the West Weber Mega Site. It has the potential for 20 million square feet of industrial space. The location is seven miles West of I-15 with adjacent rail, 14 miles to commercial air travel at Ogden-Hinkley Airport. Not only are there six universities and colleges within a 30-mile radius, but also have two applied technology colleges on board to supply key workforce via internships at first, and then full-time opportunities. Beyond that, there’s a population of over 600,000 in the region. Already there are 47 million square feet of industrial product in northern Utah, but there’s only a 1.6% vacancy rate. The Mega Site will be the future home of the next generation of manufacturing companies in Northern Utah.
Maybe this is conjuring a picture of a space for telemarketers. That is not the goal of this partnership. The focus is on advanced manufacturing jobs. Only companies offering high-quality and high-paying jobs are accepted into the mega site. These jobs aren’t just meant to attract today’s workers, but continuing to attract future generations to remain in the area.
Next there is possibly a worry about housing a new generation of workers. Stephanie would like you to know that “density” is not a dirty word. Currently the entire state of Utah and the country are frankly experiencing a housing crisis. Urban planning is the responsible way to grow economically. Already there are plans for workforce housing: the typical smaller house lots in sizes large, medium, and small. Most successful governments are proactive not reactive. In this case, Weber County is being very proactive in order to retain the new jobs the site will create.
Years ago, this site was zoned as an industrial site. This came long before there was any dream of a mega site. By now it’s nearly shovel-ready. It’s predicted to create roughly 25,000 jobs. The mega site will be the area’s biggest opportunity for manufacturing jobs. As a state, Utah is number two in the nation for manufacturing according to Site Selection Group. We’re also the fastest growing state. The Ogden-Clearfield area was ranked as the seventh youngest city in the nation, toting a population of 54.1% under 35 years of age. Northern Utah must be proactive to prepare for a future of a larger, more skilled population.
Stephanie, Chris, and Gage want all of Weber County to know that they’re being smart about the growth and making an attempt to manage it. Their goal is to create jobs for generations, so that locals can be employed in an area where they don’t have to leave. Other areas might define economic growth some other way, but here, it comes down to jobs.