The Grand County Economic Development Department is designing two grants aimed at helping local businesses, diversifying the local economy, and raising wages for local workers. A substantial amount of money is available: one of the two grant programs will have $500,000 to disperse, and the other will have $55,000. The money comes from transient room tax revenues—the smaller grant program is marketing-focused, and will come out of TRT money reserved for tourism promotion. The larger amount is from the segment of TRT devoted to economic development, a new earmark established by Utah House Bill 247 in 2021. County staff are gathering feedback from the community to help shape the grants.
“This is a pilot,” said Ben Alter, economic development specialist for Grand County, at a March 31 community open house to present and discuss the grants. “We’re learning as much from this as you are—hopefully we learn a ton.”
Transient room tax reform
The two grants are a new way of using TRT funds to support tourism-driven economies like Grand County’s. The spending of TRT revenues is tightly regulated by state code: what percentage can be spent on what, and when it must be spent, are all outlined. In the 2021 general session of the Utah State Legislature, Representative Carl Albrecht (R., District 70), who represents part of Grand County, sponsored a bill amending TRT code to allow a portion of revenues to be spent on economic diversification. The new earmark has a five-year sunset clause, meaning the legislature will re-evaluate it at that time and decide whether to terminate or continue the economic diversification spending category. Grand County’s pilot grant program is one way county staff hope to put the money to good use and produce beneficial results that will convince legislators to renew the economic diversification earmark.
Economic diversification grant
The larger of the two grant pools is intended to raise wages or lower the costs of living for Grand County workers. The objective—“to shorten the gap between wages and the cost of living for local residents while addressing the need for an increasingly resilient and diverse economy”—comes from a 2021 county resolution that established the county’s Economic Diversification Advisory Council.
The money will be dispersed under the Economic Diversification Grant, in three tiers of awards. About 20 Tier 1 awards, up to $4,999, will be dispersed. Tier 2 awards will be between $5,000 and $24,999, and around four will be dispersed. About three Tier 3 awards will be available in amounts between $25,000 and $100,000.
Any established business or nonprofit in Grand County may apply. A panel of five reviewers will evaluate applications based on a set of four criteria. The panel will be composed of two community representatives, one government official each from Moab City and Grand County, and one representative from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.
The criteria are broadly defined as impact; diversification; feasibility and duration; and diversity, equity and inclusion. Impacts might include increased wages, productivity, benefits, and workspace. Impacts could also be defined as non-monetary community benefits. Diversification means the proposed project would expand underrepresented industries in the local economy. A project that is likely to have lasting impacts is more likely to receive a positive evaluation from the review panel, and businesses that employ or serve socioeconomically disadvantaged groups will also be scored more highly.
During a March 1 workshop with the Grand County Commission, Economic Development Department Director August Granath gave an example of a project that might get funded through this grant program: a local artisan craftsperson making quality goods might want to purchase a piece of equipment, buy or develop more workspace, or hire an employee to increase or improve production. This grant could be a path to do that. At the workshop, commissioners encouraged staff to keep the grant parameters open and flexible, encouraging a diversity of organizations to apply.
A match will be required from successful applicants: 10% for Tier 1 awards, and 20% for Tiers 2 and 3. At least half the match must be paid as cash; the other half may be made through in-kind services or materials and supplies. For example, if a business is awarded $1000, it must pay a 10% match, or $100; $50 of that may be paid as labor, supplies, volunteer time, or through another grant (though the two grants being designed now may not be used to pay for this match). Funds must be spent within a year, and awardees must report back to the Economic Development Department on the results of the spending.
Applicants will be required to meet with a representative from Utah State University Extension’s Small Business Development Center to ensure their project ideas fit well with the grant program. That position is currently vacant at the USU Moab Extension; the county hopes to see it filled by the time the application period is open. If no Moab representative has been hired by then, applicants will consult with the Blanding representative, who has been filling in for the Moab area while the Moab position remains vacant.
Small tourism business marketing grant
Tourism-focused businesses are unlikely to qualify for the economic diversification grant (though they’re not barred from applying, and could be awarded funds if their projects meet the criteria). The smaller, $55,000 grant pool is focused on helping small, local tourism businesses market their goods and services to Moab visitors and compete with larger companies with larger budgets. The grant is limited to marketing that targets visitors who are already in town—it will not support projects aimed at drawing more visitors to the area. Applicants must be small—have 10 or fewer employees—and locally owned. They’re also encouraged to align their advertising, when relevant, with the county’s advertising ordinance, which says all Moab promotion must emphasize educational or responsible recreation messaging.
The panel for the marketing grant will have the same make-up as the panel for the economic diversification grant. The criteria for the smaller grant include return on investment; diversity, equity and inclusion; collaboration (a project will score higher if it includes local partnerships); and the inclusion of a sustainability message.
“If your message is, ‘leave your beer cans on Hell’s Revenge trail, have a good time,’ that’s not what we’re looking for,” Alter joked at the community engagement meeting.
About 11 grants will be dispersed in amounts of about $5,000, and grantees will be expected to contribute a 10% match, which, like the other program, must be half in cash, and may be half in in-kind goods or services.
The Economic Development Department hosted two in-person public engagement sessions to hear from local organizations on what would help them most. About 8 community members attended a weekday evening session, and around a dozen came to a weekday lunch session at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center. Granath said the sessions generated some new ideas, such as offering grant-writing support for applicants. Community members may still offer feedback through an online form at https://rb.gy/bnclst.
Staff hope to have the grant finalized by May, and to open the application window for the month of July. The scoring committee will evaluate the applications in August, and grants will tentatively be dispersed in the fall. This pilot program will inform how the department proceeds with community grants next year.
“We’re taking a research lens on this,” said Granath.