Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer J. Cox spoke at a forum and Q&A at Gardner Commons on Wednesday, April 24 to discuss the importance of urban planning in small Utah communities. The forum was held by the University of Utah’s department of City and Metropolitan Planning. Cox cracked jokes in between his interesting anecdotal stories about growing up in Sanpete County, a rural county south of Provo. As he asked for some water and quickly took a swig from a plastic bottle tossed to him, he joked it was his “Marco Rubio moment.”
All jokes aside, Cox gave many insightful anecdotes about how tough it was growing up in Sanpete County, where driving up to Provo twice a year was a “luxury.” He spoke about the developmental issues the county faced, and how modernization has had both negative and positive effects on the development of our rural counties in Utah. Cox said that when he was young, he “wanted to get out of Sanpete County and Fairview.”
And he’s done just that. Cox left for Snow College, or what he said locals called the “13th Grade” because everyone went to Snow if they were going to college at all. After that, Lt. Gov. Cox served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then attended Utah State University, followed by law school at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He and his wife decided to come back to their small town in Utah after living in Virginia, where we was elected to City Councilman, then Mayor in 2005, at 29 years old.
He described how important it is for the educated to come back to the small towns they came from and help develop them. Had he not come back, he would be contributing to the “brain drain” he described, where former residents settle in larger cities instead of their rural hometowns.
Cox spoke about how small towns “face the same problems as big cities … The difference is small towns don’t have the resources to solve problems, there is a human capital issue.” Cox described this human capital issues as the “STP” problem. This stands for Same Ten People, and these Same Ten People are those who organize, volunteer and run for office. This hinders the ability for these rural towns to develop — it’s not a shortage of monetary capital, but human capital.
Cox explained what he called the “three classes in America:” the mobile, the stuck and the rooted. The “mobile” are, for example, U students who are educated and have the ability to move around as they wish. The “stuck” are the rural folks who stay in the area and do not leave. They are stuck in their small communities and likely feel disenfranchised. The “rooted” are the “people that help the stuck, the people who come back to help.”
Cox emphasized, “Don’t forget the rural … your food, water and energy come from these rural areas [and] they are very important to the success of Utah.” He spoke on how the booming Utah economy has left the rural folks hung out to dry. “Their old economies have gone, and the new economy doesn’t care about them. And if they send their kids to college, they usually don’t come back.” Cox came back to Sanpete County, and now he is the second most powerful man in the state.