A section of Highway 12 A Journey through Time Scenic Byway in Garfield County, Utah, one of the counties taking part in Utah's Rural County Grant Program. (Photo courtesy of Office of Planning & Economic Development in Garfield County, Utah)

Part of a series on Utah rural development programs.

When Brandi Pearson moved to tiny Manila in rural Daggett County in Utah – the smallest county in the state by population – she realized the community was missing some basic necessities and services for both residents and tourists alike. 

Pearson, who was working at a small local market in the town that has no stoplight, noticed the thousands of visitors who came through the community on their way to various sites. Many were simply looking for a bathroom to use – some with children in tow. 

“We don’t have public restrooms here,” she said. “So with the amount of people who come through here, it’s amazing. It’s a lot. So people would stop, there’s no restrooms and then you don’t even know what to tell them.”

“People need restrooms,” she added. “They have just driven at least three hours to get here.”

In fact, the line at the market would sometimes be so long that employees didn’t have time to use a restroom themselves, she noted. 

When Pearson became the Daggett County Commission assistant and economic development director, she knew one area she wanted to work on was increasing access to restrooms in the county. 

Building Out the Basics

Thanks to Utah’s recently enacted Rural County Grant Program, Daggett County is well on its way to additional bathrooms — and shorter lines — among other projects. 

The Rural County Grant Program was created to address the economic development needs of rural counties. Eligible projects can include business recruitment, development, and expansion; workforce training and development; and infrastructure and capital facilities improvements for business development. 

The grant has two distinct parts, according to the official regulations: an annual distribution of up to $200,000 annually, distributed equally to each qualifying rural county, and a competitive award, which is won by application. Annual distribution tops out at $800,000 per year for a single county.

“The Rural County Grant program empowers rural county governments to take responsibility for their economic development planning, projects, and activities,” according to the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. 

Pearson, for one, is a fan of the program. 

“I think it’s a wonderful program and I think, honestly, without that program what would we do? ” she said. “ We’re a small county and we have a small budget and we depend on grants to make these things happen. And it’s very important we get these grants and continue to get them.” 

With the help of the Rural County Grant Program, Daggett County is getting nearly 10 portable toilets that will be able to be relocated throughout the area for various events and activities, Pearson said. 

“I want more for our community,” she said. “It’s great people. A lot of people don’t want to see the growth, but unfortunately growth is going to happen. Change is going to happen. I would like to be ahead of the game instead of behind the game.”

Diversifying to Survive

For Kaden Figgins, the county planner and economic development director for Garfield County in Utah, diversifying the area from solely focusing on economic development around leisure and hospitality is his goal. 

“It’s kind of scary when you have a pandemic and you have Ruby’s Inn as the county’s largest employer and over 700 employees and they have an entire day with zero reservations and not one single visitor on the property. … So it’s important to diversify and not have all of our eggs in one basket.” 

Figginsis interested in offering a place that gives remote workers the quiet, professional work space they need. “Whether that is for entrepreneurs, single moms or individuals in Garfield County but working from home, or even the traveler who would like to go to Bryce Canyon National Park and hike and go to the office to get some work done,” he said. 

He said the pandemic has proven that the remote and virtual worlds aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

“Covid made that more of a reality,” he said, adding that people no longer have to drive hours round-trip for a 20-minute meeting. However, he also said that face-to-face is still desirable. 

Another goal Garfield County outlined in their proposal for the Rural County Grant was creating a livable wage in the community, something Figgins said can be difficult in the tourism industry unless it’s a management-level position. 

“I think a lot of people in rural America, in rural Utah, work multiple jobs,” he said. 

He has a salaried job, waits tables and has a private consulting business. 

“A lot of people do that but the quality of life here is fantastic,” he said. “We live here for a reason – the rural character and the quality of life.”

This article was supported in part by the Solutions Journalism Network