Economic Enlightenment: Five Questions for Rusty Hughes of Washington County
Rusty Hughes is interim director of St. George Area Economic Development, a public/private partnership created to direct the economic development of Washington County and its cities.
In the past, she has learned to weld, helped low-income individuals file their tax returns, pounded nails for Habitat for Humanity, taught coding through various tech initiatives such as Tech Savvy and Girls Go Digital, and managed the SEED Dixie entrepreneur development program. “Lots of organizational and volunteer work led me down this path,” she says.
We caught up with her to find out more about her economic development goals and principles, and the strengths of and challenges for the region’s economy.
What does economic development mean to you?
RH: At the broadest level it means a brighter future. Economic development is an investment in your community and a means to address social issues. It’s a hope for prosperity both now and in the future. The work is meaningful to me, and I’m able to touch these different aspects every day.
What is your overall philosophy when it comes to economic development?
There is a push/pull tension you have to manage. You have to balance the “grow your own” approach – which means investing in local entrepreneurs and small businesses. At the same time, you need to attract outside, often larger, companies, so you have a regular influx of new ideas, talent, and investment. You have to play the long game, investing in infrastructure.
You’re not going do all things at all times. Each approach is important, but at a given time, one approach may need more attention than the others. You have to strike a careful balance, always assessing what you need at that point. It’s like how they describe the path to Buddha. If you have your eye on the goal, you can lose the path. If you have your eye on the path, you can lose the goal. To attain enlightenment, or in this case balanced economic development, you have to be a little bit cockeyed!
One thing I’ve learned is you always have to work on developing your pipeline of talent. The volunteer work I did as a stay-at-home mom introduced me to that issue. Both my kids like tech but I did not see a career path for my daughter. I learned so much working with the women who ran Tech Savvy and other programs. These efforts made me feel I was making a difference for young women. Having young women engaged in the workforce, so they can pursue any career path, is good in the long run for our region’s economy. Diverse workforces are more productive.
What are the challenges and opportunities of the area?
Growth. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. We’re one of the fastest-growing communities in the country with a lot of people moving here, and workforce housing is an issue. Longer term, will we have enough water is another issue.
We just performed an area sector analysis, and we learned some important things. For one, the community puts an emphasis on preserving our natural setting and our water supplies, so we have to be careful about how we grow.
Another thing is a perception – or rather a misperception – of our workforce. We’re perceived as a retirement community, but when you look at the statistics, there’s another story.
In the 20 to 24 age range, the 35 to 39, and 65 to 69, we have available workforce of about 5,000 people each. We have workers across all age ranges. Those older workers are very skilled and knowledgeable. They move here intending to retire, but soon realize they want to give back so they often reenter the workforce or seek opportunities to engage as mentors or advisors.
We do a great job advertising Washington County as a tourism destination and can do a better job advertising the area as a fantastic place to do business. We have a diverse economy here. We have a vibrant and entrepreneurial tech community. We have innovative, home grown companies in biotech like DXNA and Soft Cell Bio, and internationally-recognized Intermountain Precision Genomics. We have aerospace and advanced materials with Ram Company and MetaShield, and semiconductor manufacturing with 5N Plus. We have logistics and distribution with Walmart and locally-owned Cox Trucking, food manufacturing with Litehouse Foods, and the largest jewelry manufacturer in the world – Paparazzi – which employs 750 people and sells their products through 65,000 distributors. Paparazzi was founded and maintains their corporate headquarters in Washington County.
A recent corporate expansion coming to St. George – RS Technologies – is a big win. They are a solid, innovative company in a resilient industry bringing composite manufacturing to this corner of the state. They see the potential here. The win was a public-private team effort, thanks to Shirlayne Quayle and Mayor Jon Pike of the city, Commissioner Dean Cox, Representative Lowry Snow, Chairman LaDel Laub, local GOED Board member Stefanie Bevans, Doug and Troy Scheel from Collier's International, Steve Jennings from Ft. Pierce Industrial Park, and our SGAED Board members.
What are your goals for the region?
I think the five counties in Southwestern Utah can be stronger economically if we work more closely together. For example, there are 12,000 people in the workforce that we swap on a daily basis with Iron County. There’s a point of collaboration there, meaning a win for Cedar City is a win for St. George and vice versa. There are similar opportunities with Kane, Beaver, and Garfield Counties. Those conversations are taking place and I’m optimistic about where they will lead and what they will mean for the region.
What if any good do you see coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ve had a negative impact from COVID-19 and our tourism industry is feeling it very hard. Overall it will highlight weak spots for us to work on to improve especially in terms of more diversification. It is shaking us hard but is also sparking innovation.
One of the strengths of the area is our pioneer grit. Our people came to a desert devoid of water and long before there was air conditioning. Our ancestors worked hard and sacrificed to make this place livable. We are independent and proud of what our ancestors did. That pride, that stubbornness, can work against us too, so we have to learn from our mistakes and be open to new ideas. The pandemic will help us focus on that.
Bonus question - How do you see EDCUtah fitting into your strategy going forward?
EDCUtah can complement our efforts. We just received four new projects that reached out directly to our office last week. That brings the total to 18 active projects we’re working with EDCUtah.
The Global Strategy & Outreach campaigns and the Know the Customer initiative are very useful and we’re partnering on them. We’re taking part in the Development Ready Communities training sessions, and we’re engaged with Mega Site development.
I love that EDCUtah has a focus on and expertise in certain industries. I also like the emphasis on research and data, which we’re also putting to use. When EDCUtah is pitching Utah to companies, you include the lifestyle but don’t lead with the lifestyle. You lead with data.