Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that examines Tooele County’s business climate and workforce.
Will Craig climbs into his car every morning and commutes to Sandy where he works as a senior safety and health consultant for Worker’s Compensation Fund. Craig, who grew up in Owensboro, Ky., moved to Tooele County in 2002 to work for EnergySolutions. After four years he changed jobs and started making daily trips around the Oquirrh Mountains.
“I love Tooele County,” he said. “It has affordable housing, a great small town feel, good schools, and it’s only 30 minutes to downtown Salt Lake. It’s not a bad commute.” Craig is not alone with such feelings about living here. He’s also not alone everytime he drives to work.
A total of 10,946 people — 46 percent of Tooele County’s workforce population — commute to Salt Lake County every day to earn a paycheck, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies. Salt Lake County’s large business base provides employment stability to Tooele County’s employment rates, according to James Robson, regional economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. But some say that stability comes with a cost. Nicole Cline, former economic development director for Tooele County, moved here in 1980 and commuted to Salt Lake City for work at the time.
“I used to pass a steady stream of traffic coming into Tooele County to work at Tooele Army Depot,” she said. “I was one of the few cars making my way into Salt Lake.”
Cline, who now commutes to Salt Lake Community College where she teaches political science, said the traffic pattern is the reverse today.
“Prior to the mid 1990s, Tooele County was a very quiet place,” she said. “Most of the people that lived here worked here and growth was very slow.”
From 1980 to 1995 Tooele County’s population grew by 15 percent, adding only 3,979 people in the 15-year period. But from 1995 to 2010, the county’s population jumped by 28,243 — a staggering 94 percent. That boom period brought in a new breed of residents. According to Cline, record breaking new housing construction lured people who worked in Salt Lake County here. They found Tooele County’s lower housing costs and rural lifestyle irresistible.
As a result Tooele County’s workforce has become more dependent upon Salt Lake County — the largest economic engine in the state — just like many other counties along the Wasatch Front. Of the six counties that border Salt Lake County, Tooele County sends the largest portion of its workforce (46 percent) there for work. Utah, Wasatch, Summit, Morgan, and Davis counties send between 25 and 41 percent of their workforces.
Numerous and diverse types of business are why so many workers drive to Salt Lake County every day. Salt Lake County had 35,262 business establishments that employed an average of 603,457 people per month in 2012, according Department of Workforce Services data. In comparison, Tooele County had 963 business establishments that employed an average of 15,864 people per month in 2012.
Also during last year the average monthly employment in Tooele County dropped by 129 jobs. But according to Robson, unemployment in the county actually fell from 6.9 to 6.2 percent because local residents picked up a portion of the 19,631 new jobs that were created in Salt Lake County in 2012.
The regional economist expects the flow of workers from Tooele to Salt Lake County to increase in 2013 as local jobs continue to decline due to the completion of Deseret Chemical Depot’s mission of destroying its chemical weapons stockpile. While leaving the county for work is preferable to unemployment, communities with a high percentage of residential commuters create challenges for local government, according to Cline.
“People working outside the county often spend a larger portion of their spendable income outside the county,” said Cline. “The result is a loss of demand for retail establishments and fewer employment opportunities in the county.”
Along with the loss of retail dollars for businesses there is also a loss in potential sale tax revenue for local government, she said. Also, large commuting populations place a burden on transportation infrastructure and contribute to a decrease in air quality.
“The reality is residential property taxes don’t cover the expenses of government services required by the increased growth,” said Cline. “Without substantial investment by businesses in personal and real property, the tax rate of a community would have to substantially increase to cover the expenses for required services.”
Reducing the amount of commuters in Tooele County is more than an economic issue for Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne. He believes reducing the need to commute to Salt Lake for work is also a quality of life issue.
“There have been studies that link an increase in commuting time with health problems such as obesity and stress,” he said. “Time spent commuting is time that could be spent either being more productive at work, at home with family, pursuing personal hobbies, or volunteering in the community.”
One of Tooele County’s economic development goals is to attract enough businesses to Tooele County that everybody who lives here and wants to work in the county can do so, said Milne.
“I know there will always be those people that want to live in Tooele County but commute to work elsewhere,” he said. “But that should be a choice.”
That’s the choice Craig made when he decided to stay in Tooele County, despite his commute to Sandy for work. He has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Utah and is a certified industrial hygienist.
“Only large companies hire people like me,” he said. “If a large enough company came to Tooele and they needed an experienced industrial hygienist and could pay me enough money, I might think about it.”
Until then, Craig is happy with his double life as a Tooele County resident and an employee in Salt Lake County.