CEDAR CITY — Gov.-elect Spencer Cox's office announced Wednesday it has created a new position — senior adviser for rural affairs — to serve as the point person for the administration's rural outreach. And when it came to filling that position, Cox opted for a small-town Utah native with experience in state government, academia and rural policy.
Cox named Stephen Lisonbee to the position. He is currently the assistant vice president of the Office of Regional Services at Southern Utah University, heading a department that helps the university engage with southern Utah governments, agencies and employers for regional growth and development.
Lisonbee will retain the post while advising the Cox administration, the office said Wednesday in a news release, adding that his appointment creates a "first-of-its-kind partnership" that fulfills "a campaign promise to raise the profile of rural issues."
"The biggest win for rural Utah is having Gov.-elect Cox move into office," Lisonbee told KSL.com. "He is, and always has been, a champion of coordination across all of Utah to ensure every community is receiving that equitable support to meet their goals and their plans."
Lisonbee called it a "great honor to be able to serve, in any capacity."
Lisonbee is no stranger to state government; he previously served in the Utah Department of Workforce Services, where he said he had the opportunity to work with the lieutenant governor's office on several projects. Lisonbee sat on the Governor's Rural Partnership Board with Cox and worked with his office on the third phase of Operation Rio Grande, which focused on job training and employment opportunities.
It wasn't until well after the general election, which Cox was projected to win on Nov. 3, that Lisonbee was first contacted about the rural affairs advisory position, Lisonbee said.
"That was a really personal interaction," Lisonbee said. "He approached that very graciously. He was very open and honest. He reiterated what his priorities were — to ensure rural Utah had a voice, that they had additional support that could convene them, and help provide that collaboration and support that they would need.
"One of the very well-aligned efforts is that my current capacity at Southern Utah University supports these same efforts," he added. "The Office of Regional Services here is all about helping our rural and regional communities have a voice and receive the support they need to be successful. So it was a very natural fit."
Lisonbee said Cox's rural priorities have been "articulated throughout the campaign." Promises on the Cox campaign website include a "major overhaul" of the Governor's Office of Economic Development "to prioritize economic development in rural areas," installing a "rural chief of staff" — Lisonbee — and "promoting the aggressive placement of state jobs in rural areas."
It's an opportunity to create environments where our rural community leaders feel like they are receiving development and support so that they can navigate their own change, and their own growth, and their own innovation.
But Lisonbee said his focus will be on the strategy behind implementing rural policy.
"Over the course of my career, these are some of the things that have helped me create a successful environment: the ability to bring together individuals on important issues, find alignment, and the opportunity to move those things forward.
"It's an opportunity to create environments where our rural community leaders feel like they are receiving development and support so that they can navigate their own change, and their own growth, and their own innovation."
Lisonbee said some rural communities "don't have a lot of bandwidth to be able to navigate where to go or who to work with" and that those "strategies and approaches" have been his talent.
"I think that's what I can do to help with some of his key points," he said.
Lisonbee only recently committed to the adviser position, and there's still a month to go before Cox formally assumes the governor's role. The details of Lisonbee's responsibilities have yet to be ironed out, he said, but Lisonbee promised "frequent communication" with Cox that will be "very open and direct."
"We've got just a little bit of time before he takes office to figure some of those things out," he said.
Whatever it looks like, Lisonbee said creating the position is a great first step for rural Utah and a credit to Cox.
"He has lived in rural Utah" — Cox is from Fairview — "he has led communities at both the city and county level in rural Utah, and he understands it."
Ryan Starks, the managing director of business services for the Governor's Office of Economic Development, oversees the office's rural development team. Starks said it was a "brilliant move" by Cox to create the rural adviser position. "It really shows that the governor-elect is committed to rural Utah," he said.
Starks said Lisonbee's biggest challenge will be to "convene all of the many stakeholders and to pull together all of the many good ideas for rural Utah."
"There's a lot of people with a lot of ideas," he said. "And, we'll call it a challenge, but a great opportunity is to convene these people and get a clear message, and then to represent that message to the governor's office and to the Legislature."
The potential for rapid growth, like Washington County is experiencing, is one challenge rural Utah will face in the coming years. "Rural Utah is different," Starks said, "meaning, Washington County and Iron County are very different from Piute County and Wayne County. So the needs of rural Utah vary greatly. Washington County, which embraces growth, may be different from a Wayne County that wants to remain small and quaint. So I think the challenge is understanding the needs of the local community and finding ways to address those needs." Such needs will include affordable housing, transportation and broadband internet, Starks said.
He said the GOED has worked closely with Lisonbee on rural initiatives. Lisonbee's SUU office has sponsored the Utah Rural Summit each year, and Starks said Lisonbee has done "a phenomenal job" in that capacity.
"This rural adviser will continue to work closely with the Governor's Office of Economic Development," Starks said, "so I think that just strengthens our ability to help and support rural Utah, and we're really excited to welcome him aboard."
Lisonbee was raised in Millard County, attended Southern Utah University and earned an MBA there. He lives in La Verkin, Washington County, with his wife, Pamela.