Economic survival depends on
innovation, evolution of industry
(Editors note: This is the final installment in a series of four articles concerning the economy of Carbon County and what the future may hold).
It would be easy for Carbon County to get down on itself economically.
Sure, right now there is a bit of a doldrums, and employment doesn't look as good as it could.
Sure, the number of people working in the coal industry has decreased based on state figures provided recently.
And soon some working in the power industry in the county may be out of a job when the Carbon Plant in Price Canyon closes.
But there are a lot of positives about what could happen and what is happening. The main things to concentrate on are two words: innovation and evolution.
"To survive in today's business environment innovation, changing the way things are done in a business that faces challenges is very important," said Delynn Fielding, the economic development director for the county. "That is what keeps business alive in this environment."
The Business Expansion and Retention (BEAR) program that Fielding heads along with a board is one of those pluses in the county. In fact the program has been so successful and so well received that now the Utah State Office of Economic Development has helped other counties to set up similar programs.
Over the years the area has beat the bushes for businesses to come into the area, to diversify the economy so that energy production was not the only form of economic power. But frustrated officials have also beat their heads against a wall time after time, as sometimes even small factors have kept those businesses from moving to eastern Utah, losing out to other areas of the state.
While still looking for other businesses to move here (they are in conversations a number of interested parties at present), they found that reliance on moving things here, rather than growing from within, was more unsure. It was determined that either new startup businesses from the area or existing businesses that want to expand services or make products that could be shipped out were a much more stable way to grow the economy.
"Our program of Economic Gardening, which started a short time ago is an expansion of what the BEAR program started out with," said Fielding. "That program helps businesses to take new ideas and concepts to the next level, moving them into reality."
Presently about a half dozen businesses are working on Economic Gardening programs.
Business expansion may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to using lessons learned locally that can be applied nationally and internationally.
Intermountain Electronics is a good example of a business that quietly has expanded over the years into doing a lot of business outside the country. According to its web site it "designs, engineers, manufactures, and services custom electrical distribution and control equipment for underground mining, surface mining, power generation, oil and gas, refineries, tunneling, utilities, and federal, state, and local governments." The expertise to do all these things initially came from working in with local eastern Utah energy industries. The company has also established two other plants, besides the one in Carbon County, in Kentucky to serve their customers needs.
Other local businesses have also followed this lead.
Take Kee Engineering and Consulting for instance. A firm that specializes in motor control design, generator and backup system design, automation design, and provides management and consulting to the energy industry in various ways, it has grown from local roots to a nationally known company. The company is currently working all across the western United States including in North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and Utah.
Most importantly they have evolved and innovated because their clients have helped them to move their business from area to area. The company recently hired two new engineers, one senior engineer and one new engineer right out of school who were brought in because of the large demand the firm has experienced over the past year.
Another business, Filter Testing Services, currently sells their product all across the United States. Specific areas include Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Alabama, Illinois and all across the Intermountain West. The company also has placement at several mines in Australia.
"We looked at the various markets throughout the nation and the globe where our products would have a good fit," said Sim Bunderson of FTS. "From there, we contacted some people in Australia and generated some interest. From that contact, we were able to place our product with several locations there. We saw some very quick growth from that one contact, showing just how important some contacts can be."
As for coal itself, there are those that say coal will not decline in use, but actually increase, possibly in different ways. A good example of an expert who says that is Frank Clemente, a former professor of social science and energy policy at Penn State University. Clemente's research specialization was and still is the socioeconomic impact of energy policy, especially on families, minorities, business and communities.
In a recent presentation in Grand Junction, Colo. he said that while all forms of energy are growing in demand, coal will continue to be an important factor in growing economies and in peoples living standards. He pointed out that China is the example of a developing country for the rest of the world. Its coal based energy has caused it to grow leaps and bounds, lowering poverty levels significantly in the country.
Sometimes we also forget that coal is used (and can be used) for more than just producing electricity. Clemente points out that coal is used to manufacture products, can be refined into liquid fuel, produces various chemicals used by our modern society, is used to make coke for steel, amongt other things.
Despite the decline in coal mining jobs in the area in the last few years, there is a future for coal, but it may be different. The industry will innovate and evolve as it needs to to stay viable.
(C.J. McManus contributed to this article).