VERNAL — Utah has maintained a strong economy throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but some areas are faring better than others.
Uintah County has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 11%, according to the Governor's Office of Economic Development. That's partially because of the pandemic and also the decline of the oil and gas industry that's long been the county's lifeline.
But early next month, Vernal will celebrate the grand opening of a new co-working and innovation space that might seem more at home in Salt Lake or San Francisco. The aim is to create new business and opportunity for the Uintah Basin. The Vernal Innovation Hub includes space for work, meetings and events, will host business development classes, and has membership levels to rent space by the month or just pop in for a day.
"The Innovation Hub evolved from idea to completion despite a downturn in the local economy," the GOED said last week in a news release. It began "when over 20 community leaders joined together to take a significant step in diversifying an economy heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry."
The state formed a committee that represented 12 "area entities" and small tech businesses and entrepreneurs.
"The group recognized the Basin's future economy must incrementally move to non-energy production job creation by targeting online workforce opportunities, small business creation, and technology-based businesses."
Lori Haslem, a longtime Vernal-area businesswoman, is the Innovation Hub manager. She said the Hub was financed through a GOED grant and through contributions from Vernal city, Uintah County and Strata Networks, the local high-speed internet provider.
She said the facility is a perfect place to work remotely.
"You have high-speed internet, you have it furnished, and everything that you would need for an online position for a very inexpensive price," Haslem said.
Memberships at the Innovation Hub are $199 per month for a dedicated office; $99 a month for a dedicated desk; $49 a month for unlimited access to common area workspace; and $5 for a day pass. The building is accessible to members 24 hours a day and includes amenities like printers and copy machines, videoconference technology, mailbox services, phone booths, a podcast room, and a break room.
The Innovation Hub is located on Main Street in a two-story building that used to be a police department. Haslem said it already has some tenants but will celebrate its official grand opening on Feb. 10.
"We have everyone from web designers, we have a guy who designs games who wants to collaborate with others and use our workspace," she said. "We have financial advisers, and all kinds of tech fields are joining in."
Haslem said the Hub will also have clubs and classes on entrepreneurship and how to start a business. She hopes to work with the local campus of Utah State University Uintah Basin on entrepreneurship courses and events.
"We're hoping to diversify and help develop those kinds of jobs here," Haslem said, "other than just the oil and gas industry."
More information about the Vernal Innovation Hub is available at vernalinnovationhub.com.
Correction: This article originally said the Innovation Hub received a grant from the Governor's Office of Management and Budget; it was the Governor's Office of Economic Development.