Bumper stickers in the Uintah Basin used to read: "Will the last one out of Vernal please turn out the lights."
"Well, the lights are back on in Vernal," laughs Uintah County Commissioner Lorin Merrell.The economy is getting stronger, folks are optimistic and cash registers are once again ringing. This time the lights are being fueled by a resurging natural-gas industry, as well as oil.
That's fine and dandy with local government leaders. "But I hope we don't get in the mindset of depending on one industry for our survival," observed fellow Commissioner Max Adams. "We did that 10 years ago, and we still haven't recovered (from the bust)."
Nevertheless, at least 3,000 of the 22,000 people who live in Uintah County are employed in oil-related businesses. No other single industry in this region even comes close.
And that, the commissioners say, creates the potential for more boom-and-bust cycles that have made economic survival in the basin unpredictable at best, devastating at worst. Currently, the basin remains in a bust cycle that has lasted almost 10 years.
That is one key reason why many in Uintah Basin now say the key to their future is not oil. It's diversity. It's new golf courses, rodeo grounds, museums, convention centers and a host of other facilities that will make the Uintah Basin an attractive place for families to live and businesses to relocate.
Regional boosterism? Maybe. But local leaders are nonetheless investing huge sums to develop the non-petroleum related economy, particularly tourism. About $5.7 million is being spent on a single rodeo and convention facility they say will
rival any facility in the state.
"We are determined to have one of the top 10 rodeos anywhere in America," Merrell said.
And the county is doggedly pursuing the paving of a new highway across the Book Cliffs that would link I-70 near Moab to Vernal, theidea is to divert millions of Yellowstone-bound tourists northward on a direct route through Dinosaur National Monument.
The area boasts one of the most aggressive travel councils anywhere in the state. Coincidence or not, nearby Flaming Gorge National Recreation has exploded in popularity, and visits to the Dinosaur National Monument have been solidly consistent, if not spectacular.
Vernal, in particular, is already becoming the business and oil-service industry hub for northwestern Colorado, southwestern Wyoming and eastern Utah. Incentives are being offered to companies who will relocate.
"The goal is to make the Uintah Basin a destination point, not just a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else," Adams said. "But to do that we have to have the facilities in place, things for them to do once they get here. And we have to make it a great place to live when they decide to stay."
The most ambitious project is the Uintah County Western Park, a 3,800-capacity indoor rodeo arena and convention hall for concerts, horse shows, exhibits and trade shows. An outdoor rodeo arena will hold another 7,000 people.
The state-of-the-art facility also includes an outdoor amphitheater for plays and performances and a large new museum with rotating exhibits of western history, particularly the rich outlaw heritage of Brown's Park.
"We're not kidding when we say we're targeting conventions that are now going to St. George or Salt Lake," Commissioner Glen McKee said.
The 32-acre project is scheduled for completion in time for this year's rodeo and Outlaw Trails Festival in July. About 40 percent of the $5.7 million comes from oil and gas royalty payments, while the other 60 percent comes from county coffers.
That does not begin to consider the thousands of volunteer hours and donated equipment and materials. "If we had to pay 50 cents an hour for volunteer labor we'd be bankrupt in a week," Merrell said.
"It's not a quick fix, short-term thing to pump money into the community," McKee said. "It's for the long term."
That kind of optimism pervades much of the Uintah Basin these days. New businesses have moved to town, old businesses are doing better business and people are not only cashing paychecks, but they are spending them.
"When I first came back to Vernal after 27 years, I had never seen such bad attitudes," Adams said. "People hated each other, they hated the oil business, they were afraid to spend. That's changing now."
"I know we'll be a lot more cautious the next time they say a boom is coming," said Vernal City Manager Ken Bassett. "I don't think we've diversified enough yet to ride out the next bust."
But they are moving that direction.