Initiative Brings Capacity Building to Booming Rural Towns

A research and capacity building initiative based at Utah State University seeks to help fast-growing tourist meccas in the West plan for smart growth.

2 minute read

July 4, 2022, 6:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Person standing under sign that says "Moab Made" in downtown Moab, Utah.

Ilhamchewadventures / Downtown Moab, Utah.

Writing in High Country News, Heather Hansman describes an initiative known as GNAR—Gateway and Natural Resource Amenities—that seeks to help small communities experiencing heavy tourism and migration manage growth effectively. The initiative was started by Danya Rumore, a professor of planning at the University of Utah.

“Communities started to come on board, and in January of 2020, the GNAR Initiative became a part of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University. Rumore worked with academics there to create a cross-discipline, geographically broad forum to seed research, share best practices, and brainstorm ways to change practices in Western states, where state-level policy has often meant regressive planning and growth policies, including exclusionary zoning,” Hansman writes.

“Recreation towns aren’t the only places that have been hammered by changing demographics and shifting economic tides during the past two years, but Rumore says many of them were already struggling with how to plan for growth, house their workers and manage the uneven economic progress.” The sudden influx of new residents brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic blindsided many of them, accelerating their issues. “The towns might have relatively few residents, but their many visitors make use of the town’s resources, overwhelming the infrastructure without necessarily adding to the tax base. They tend to be liberal enclaves in conservative states where planning isn’t funded, even though growth is accelerating.”

Hansman provides some examples: “Businesses in Sandpoint closed because their workers couldn’t find housing. Moab’s water system approached its limit. Along Springdale’s former commercial strip, which has largely been converted to vacation rentals, Zion traffic was backed up for hours, making it hard for locals to get to work.”

The GNAR initiative has two main components: research and capacity building and education. “There is no silver bullet. No town is going to perfectly balance growth with identity, and no policy will make everyone happy, especially as new crowds and new incomes streams move in. But Rumore sees the GNAR communities as canaries in the coal mine of wealth inequality, and she believes that it’s crucial to give them tools to proactively plan for the kind of growth they want, so they aren’t  overwhelmed by rapid change.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2022 in High Country News

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