A former Canadian who cannot remember being without a pair of ice skates is now working for the Utah Economic Development Corp., a relatively new organization designed to attract new business to the Salt Lake Valley and to promote existing businesses.
Richard D. Thrasher Jr. was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and started ice skating at the age of 2, playing organized hockey when he was 10 and competing in amateur hockey until he was 26. Now, the 40-year-old Thrasher is big on golf.Thrasher comes to Utah from Lakeland, Fla., New Castle, Ind., and Superior, Wis., where he was involved with various economic development projects. His challenge in Salt Lake Valley is to boost the economy by aiding the business community.
UEDC is funded in part by the municipalities in Salt Lake Valley, but the organization also receives money from private companies. "It will be a combination of helping existing industry and getting new industry to come to Utah," Thrasher said.
After completing high school in Windsor, Thrasher attended the University of Wisconsin at Superior from 1967 to 1972, graduating with a combined social science major. On campus, he met Gail Erickson of Poplar, Wis., and they were married in 1969. She graduated in elementary education.
Even though he was still a Canadian citizen, Thrasher taught American history and coached high school hockey for three years in Hermantown, Minn., a suburb of Duluth. At the time, he still lived in Wisconsin and drove the 10 miles across the border each day to work.
Thrasher said high school hockey in northern Minnesota is just like high school basketball in Indiana and high school football in Florida. Every night the stands are full and high schools make enough money off hockey to support the other sports, he said.
In October 1976, Thrasher started teaching business and marketing at the Indianhead Vocational-Technical Institute and in June 1977 started his economic development work.
He became the executive director of the Superior-Douglas County Development Association Inc., working mainly on capital investment in transportation and tourism-related development.
Located on the west end of Lake Superior, Superior is a port city that handles many types of seasonal materials headed for domestic and foreign destinations. Thrasher's task was to increase the volume of work to compensate for its seasonal nature.
He also was involved in commercial development such as malls and revitalization of the downtown area, but perhaps his work on Barker's Island was perhaps the most noticeable, simply because nothing was turned into a tourist attraction.
Thrasher said Barker's Island in Lake Superior was started in 1917 when material from railroad construction projects was dumped into the lake and an island began to appear. After building a causeway to the island, a maritime museum appeared and the last whale-backed freighter was put on display. A small beach, a 362-slip marina, a 102-room motel, a convention center and a bird sanctuary were eventually added.
"Now it's a major tourist destination attracting people from a large area, especially for the boating," Thrasher said.
He left Wisconsin in December 1980 to become president and chief executive officer of the New Castle-Henry County Economic Development Corp. in east central Indiana and there he was faced with an "entirely different set of circumstances."
Eight out of 10 manufacturing plants in the area were auto-related and the largest plant belonged to Chrysler, which by 1982 decreased its 3,800-worker force to 600. The situation devastated New Castle, Thrasher said, and unemployment shot up to 25 percent.
The economic development corporation attracted 30 new companies to the area and within three years the situation had reversed so that the corporation received the governor's award for economic development. Thrasher said other work in the downtown New Castle area is just now showing good results.
At the time he took the job, it was considered the toughest assignment in Indiana, but Thrasher soon saw unemployment drop to 7.5 percent and assessed valuations of properties increase as a result of concerted community action.
In July 1986 he was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Lakeland Economic Development Council in central Florida and found himself in a situation different from Superior and New Castle. It was an area that attracted a wide variety of firms, so it was important that the residents choose wisely which industries to accommodate.
Lakeland was faced with the closing of a phosphate mine; the citrus industry had been hit by a freeze; and an airplane manufacturing plant closed. The area had to seek a new identity - from the citrus capital of the world to the distribution center of Florida.
So, Lakeland went after distribution companies and soon 2 million square feet of space for distribution of products were under construction.
Two economic development friends told him about the UEDC job and he started in early May. One of the first tasks is to learn the characteristics of Utah businesses and label the characteristics as assets or liabilities. "Then we market the heck out of the assets and try to reduce the liabilities," he said.
What does he like most about Utah? "The integrity of the people" is the answer. "I found everything here exactly as it was represented to me. I found people who don't want to violate their principles. I am more optimistic about the success we can achieve than when I first accepted the job," Thrasher said. Regarding the UEDC advertising campaign called "Utah: a pretty, great state" (which was completed before he arrived), Thrasher said he is both concerned and pleased that Utah doesn't have a strong identity in business outside the state border.
"This gives the new generation a chance to invent an identity and it will be easier to mold the identity," he said. "I am getting plenty of support and enthusiasm from all sides."
Just for the record, Thrasher became a naturalized American citizen in 1981 at the same time his adopted Korean daughter, Tia, became a citizen. The Thrashers also have a son, 15-year-old Richard III.
Thrasher is a certified economic developer and serves on the board of directors and certification board of the American Economic Development Council. He also lectures every summer at the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma.