Grand County Council candidates Greg Halliday (left), Rachel Nelson and Rory Paxman. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

What would you do to diversify Grand County’s economy and promote business development in the community?

The 12 candidates who are running for county and state office had the chance to answer variations on that question last week during a Moab Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate. Grand County High School debate coach Carrie Strecker moderated the event at the high school’s auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 12.

Eight candidates are running for four nominally nonpartisan seats on the Grand County Council, while two candidates each are running for two seats in the Utah House of Representatives and one seat in the Utah State Senate. Utah House District 69 candidates Brad King, D-Price, and GOP challenger Christine Watkins – a former Democratic Representative from Price – did not participate in the event.

Utah House of Representatives District 70

Democrat Bill Groff of Moab and Republican Carl Albrecht of Richfield are running for the Utah House District 70 seat that GOP Rep. Kay McIff currently occupies. McIff is not running for reelection.

Albrecht recently concluded a 40-year career with Garkane Energy, spending his last 23 years on the job as its CEO.

Over the years, he’s also served as a board member or trustee on the Dixie National Forest Advisory Council, the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah Resource Advisory Council, the Sevier District Board of Education, Snow College and the Utah College of Applied Technology. He’s currently a member of the Governor’s Rural Partnership Board.

If he’s elected, Albrecht said he would work with other state legislators to increase funding for the Business Expansion and Retention (BEAR) Program within the district.

Groff, who kick-started Moab’s mountain biking revolution when his family opened Rim Cyclery in 1983, noted that his career extends beyond the outdoor recreation industry to mining and the aviation industry, where he’s worked as a pilot.

He currently serves as the Grand County Airport Board’s chair; the board has secured more than $3 million over the past two years to improve the infrastructure at Canyonlands Field Airport.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Groff said he views aviation and airport operations as the top economic development driver in the region.

Utah State Senate District 27

Incumbent State Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, faces a challenge from longtime San Juan County rancher and Democratic candidate Heidi Redd.

Both candidates were asked what they’d do to procure state resources that can address the issues of chronic and seasonal unemployment, as well as intergenerational poverty, in southeastern Utah.

Hinkins voiced support for a bill that would set aside $1 million in grant funding to help Native Americans get their teaching degrees, because they would be more likely to stay in their communities for many years.

At the same time, he questioned efforts to expand Medicaid coverage for health care, noting that lawmakers have no idea how much it would cost the state in the long run.

“We’ve done it to the most vulnerable people in Utah, but … when you open it up to everybody, everybody’s going to come for a free lunch, whether they need it or not,” he said.

Redd suggested that intergenerational poverty could remain a problem as long as the State of Utah resists efforts to expand Medicaid coverage and help residents in need.

“I think our citizens are out for insurance, that if they do have a crisis in health, it does not rob them of their home and of their job,” she said. “And that causes intergenerational poverty. Once you get down, it is hard to get back up.”

If Utah’s economy is as robust as Gov. Gary Herbert says it is, Redd said, then there are things that lawmakers should be doing to help the less fortunate.

Grand County Council, District 5

Incumbent Grand County Council member Rory Paxman and challenger Rachel Nelson were asked what the county can do to promote economic development on public lands.

Nelson noted that although the county provides input on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposed actions, the ultimate decision regarding any of those plans rests with the BLM.

Right now, she said, there are empty oil well pads that aren’t getting drilled, and they can be drilled if the price of oil goes up. But the county shouldn’t rely on the oil and gas industry as a sustainable source of income, she said, noting that it only provided 20 new jobs during the last boom.

“To me, that really says something, ’cause even when it was at its peak just a few years ago, we just had 20 new jobs,” she said. “All being told, it’s only about 2 percent of our current economy.”

Paxman countered that the oil and gas industry has not only brought more than 20 jobs to the community – the people who work for the industry “actually support the community when they’re here.”

“We have to have a little bit of oil and gas, ’cause we cannot depend on all of the tourism base that we have right now,” he said. “Right now, we are a one-income community, which is pretty much tourism.”

The next council will have an important say in how Transient Room Tax (TRT) revenue from those visitors is ultimately spent, Paxman said.

“It’s going to be an interesting couple years, and I think we really need to have some people in there that really understand how to control that money,” he said.

Grand County Council District 4

Heather Jo White and Greg Halliday are running for current Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs’ seat; Tubbs was defeated in the June 28 primary election.

Both candidates were asked about the county’s role in facilitating an economy that offers residents year-round, stable middle class jobs.

White noted that tourism sector jobs are not high-paying. At the end of the visitor season, she said, many people who work for the industry lose their jobs, while some struggle to get through the off-season winter months.

She said the county needs to encourage businesses to come in, instead of discouraging them and pushing them to “the other side.” She also made the case against putting the county’s economic eggs in one basket.

“That means to get balanced, bring local control back to our communities, and support other businesses and small businesses,” she said.

Halliday noted that the federal, state and local governments are among the largest employers in the county.

Grand County alone, he said, provides essential services to private businesses in the community, such as roads, Emergency Medical Services, law enforcement, and search and rescue.

“All of our tour guide (services), all of our river-running groups, all of those people rely on county services to stay in business,” he said.

As far as creating stable, middle class jobs, that’s going to depend largely on whether Utah State University-Moab’s vision for a new campus becomes a reality, he said.

Grand County Council District 2

Evan Clapper and write-in candidate Jason Zimmerman are running to replace outgoing Grand County Council member Ken Ballantyne; both candidates were asked about how they would manage county funds.

Clapper said that every county in Utah that relies on mineral lease funds is suffering right now.

“But guess what? We’ve got growth in our TRT,” he said. “We are doing good.”

Through careful management of those TRT revenues, Clapper said, the county can supplement its general fund and aside money for the sheriff’s office, for instance, thereby reducing the burden on taxpayers.

Zimmerman said that revenue from the tourism industry does little to support the county’s operations.

“It’s paying for the waiter; it’s paying for the bartender; it’s paying for the cashiers behind your local T-shirt shop, but it’s not paying for the county’s infrastructure or the county’s bills,” he said. “All that is literally coming from mineral or oil and gas leasing.”

In terms of mineral lease revenue from energy development, Clapper noted that drilling work on two nearby well pads hasn’t gone anywhere.

“That is a direct result of the market,” he said. “Nobody wants to drill because they’re not making money on it, so if they can’t make money on it, why should we plan our reliance on them not doing it?”

Zimmerman said he doesn’t think people are saying that the county has to rely on the oil and gas industry.

“Obviously, the price (of oil) has to come up for anybody to make any amount of money off it, but when the boom-bust cycle does go through and the boom is booming, it’s paying,” he said. “It’s paying for everything.”

Grand County Council At-Large District

Curtis Wells and Sarah Sidwell are running for an open seat to replace outgoing Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson, who decided not to run for reelection.

Both candidates said they agree that Grand County needs an economic development department, although Wells said it’s safe to assume that they have “much different” visions of what that department would look like.

Wells said he wants a lean economic development department that understands what businesses need, while recognizing that public lands are great for recreation and tourism, as well as commodities.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that tourism provides steady, stable jobs, he said.

“But they don’t pay well,” he added.

The top seven taxpayers are all in the mineral development industry, he said, and mineral lease revenue funds “all of our amenities.”

“Mineral development built Moab and its modern infrastructure,” he said.

Sidwell, who works in marketing for Tag-A-Long Expeditions, currently serves on the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board, and she suggested that the county needs to expand its marketing efforts.

“We need to market it outside of our community, but then we also need to market it to our young people that are in our community,” she said.

The best way to do that, she said, is to bring in a college that can train residents who are already here.

At the same time, Sidwell said, the community should market itself to the outside world to promote the county’s quality of life.

County, state office-seekers address diversification, development at Oct. 12 event

To read more about the candidates, please see the voter guide in the Oct. 13-19, 2016 edition of the Moab Sun News.