Utah’s Backyard Playground

Heber Valley Tourism & Economic Development
Written by Mark Golombek

Heber Valley Tourism & Economic Development sprang up in 2012, and the melding of the chamber of commerce, economic development organization and tourism board made this a unique venture. It makes doing business easy by incorporating all of these into one entity. We spoke with the Wasatch County Economic Development Executive Director Ryan Starks.
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Heber City, within Wasatch County, Utah, is a bedroom community of Salt Lake City. It has a population of close to 30,000, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. It is also a tourist destination with many attractions that include skiing, snowmobiling and a geothermal spring known as the Homestead Crater.

Heber Valley Tourism & Economic Development is an inter-local agency. Wasatch County has two representatives on the board. Heber City serves as the county seat and has a representative from its city council on the board. Nearby Midway City has another representative. Three others represent various industries. In 2015, the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce merged with this office.

“It was a similar organization, but it did not have a budget or any paid staff at that time. So, we struck a deal and took them under our umbrella. This is where we currently sit,” says Ryan.

Heber Valley Tourism & Economic Development is mainly funded by the transient room tax that applies to anyone who stays in a hotel or a resort. Since the chamber of commerce came on board, it has attracted some private membership investment which has enabled the economic development agency to be both a private and public entity, representing both the government interests of economic development and the interests of the local chamber of commerce members.

“The overall set-up is truly unique in the state of Utah. Most counties or cities have tourism and economic development and a chamber of commerce separated into two or three organizations, but for us and the dynamics of our valley, we are making it work,” says Ryan. The chamber of commerce and tourism office interests would overlap often, so combining the two is far more productive, as the goal of both is to drive economic development.

It started in 2015 when 150 business members joined to say that they believed in what the organization was doing. By the end of 2016, that number had gone to 175, and now at the end of 2017, it has jumped to 205. “We hope to get to 250 by the end of 2018, and this success is a direct result of the amalgamation. For the foreseeable future, we will be sticking with this model,” says Ryan.

Wasatch County has 68 percent open space and is fifteen minutes from Park City, a world-class tourist destination. A fifty-minute trip from the county takes one to the Salt Lake International airport, making it a stone’s throw from large markets. It is also twenty-five minutes from Provo and Orem City.

“Between Provo, Orem and Salt Lake City, we have roughly two million people, so we are near major markets, but far enough away to still preserve that rural quality of life,” says Ryan.

The area has three state parks that are some of the most visited in Utah. Jordanelle State Park and Deer Creek State Park are on large bodies of water, with boating, fishing and kayaking. These parks also add other adventure activities, including the world’s longest over-water zip line, which is a popular attraction.

Wasatch Mountain State Park is a recreational magnet, with endless trails for all-terrain vehicles. The same park also has two golf courses, and there is an eighteen-hole course at the Homestead Resort, only five minutes away.

The Homestead Crater is a true phenomenon. It has natural mineral water that rises through the ground into a dome-like cave. It is sixty feet from the top of the dome to the water, and the water is also sixty feet deep. Fresh water circulates through it daily, and the temperatures range from ninety to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit.

“It offers people the chance to scuba dive and get certified or just the chance to swim. It also entails stand-up paddleboard yoga classes. Thousands of people visit this geothermal spring, and they come throughout the year,” says Ryan. The crater makes Heber Valley the only place in North America where you can snow ski and scuba dive in the same day.

“The population of Wasatch County is about 30,000, and that doubles, at the very least, every day in the summer. That is a lot of people spending money in our movie theatres, retail shops and hotels,” says Ryan.

Another attraction of the county is the state’s only operating tourism railroad. It is 120 years old, and in 2017, it transported 95,000 people. Ryan recalled a story of a family who took the train and were so enamored with the scenery and area in general that they went to a car dealership and bought a car to explore further. The value of tourism is very important to Heber Valley.

Since the 2002 Winter Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City, the population in Heber Valley has grown by at least 4.5 percent every year as a result of its proximity to major markets and the unparalleled quality of life. People can commute from the valley to larger centers in less time than it takes to go from one large city to another due to traffic and congestion.

“Our goal is not to just have people living here and work outside of the valley. We really want to create an economy with lots of jobs and vibrant companies that keep some of these people here,” says Ryan.

The Olympics were the real catalyst for this ongoing growth, as it put the community on the map. When people realized that Heber Valley was not far from the city, they came. The highway system was also upgraded, making the commute that much easier to navigate, and that was another contributing factor to expansion.

The housing prices are currently very high, and the challenge is in making affordable housing more available. The tourism industry requires many support jobs, but it is hard to fill those due to the high cost of living.

“There is an area called North Village that was granted density years ago. Now, the market conditions are such that there is a lot of renewed talk about developing a wider variety of housing projects, from apartments to single-family houses,” says Ryan.

There are multiple ways in which the economic development agency will attract specific industries. It starts with light and advanced manufacturing. Universities are just minutes away, and that would draw many great companies. At the moment, it has a few such companies in light manufacturing and high technology manufacturing. The next area of focus is software development and information technology. People in these fields can live anywhere in the world and work from home or set up a place of business, and Heber Valley is the perfect place for this kind of career.

“Heber Valley’s third targeted industry is health care and medical services. A lot of doctors and medical providers have been attracted here over the last number of years. Further to that, the hospital recently announced a $43 million expansion which will create more jobs and services,” says Ryan.

Another area of concentration would be professional services like accountants, engineers and anyone involved in the professional service industry. And the lifeblood of small-town America is retail, because those retail tax dollars come back to support the community, so Heber Valley strives to attract quality retailers also.

Heber City has a new industrial park. Forty acres of land was purchased over twenty years ago, and in the past few years, the economic development agency has worked with the city to turn that site into an industrial park. A developer has put in the infrastructure and utilities, including roads.

“The first company was Probst Electric, which is local. Its headquarters come in at twenty thousand square feet. But, we still have between thirty to thirty-five acres of developable land in this pristine area of the valley. Great views, close to the highway, and it is just a wonderful opportunity for a business that wants to relocate or expand to an area that is very business-friendly,” says Ryan.

Ryan predicts that Heber Valley can preserve the quality of life in a lot of the open rural areas over the next twenty years with the right planning. At the same time, he sees the development of successful economies in those areas that are zoned for commercial use.

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