For decades the economic health of southeastern Utah has risen or fallen with the uranium industry. And right now the region has a very sick economy.
One San Juan community is hoping sheepskins will provide the economic cure-all. But some say the venture could be a costly pipe dream.Monticello City officials are typing up the paperwork on an agreement they hope will bring a large sheepskin tannery to the city and with it economic salvation for the entire region.
The price tag to the city: $1.1 million.
Like every other economically depressed community in southeastern Utah, Monticello has been looking for an industry dealing in million-dollar quantities of products. And most importantly, "We wanted something that was rather stable, not like uranium," said Richard Terry, Monticello city manager.
The business that fits that bill is Cochina Tanning, a Gallup, N.M., tannery that reportedly has outgrown its facility there and is looking to expand in the Monticello area closer to its source of sheep skins.
The city was approached by Abbas Fadel, an international dealer in sheepskins and a partner in the Cochina Tanning operation, about locating the firm on the outskirts of Monticello.
However, no one involved in the deal wants to talk about it just yet. Monticello City doesn't want to talk about it because it fears some other financially pressed community will make the tannery a better offer.
"It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and we've got to keep it quiet," Terry said. "We don't want 50 other communities going after it.
Ed McConnell, a partner and principal operator of Cochina Tanning, doesn't want to talk about it because he didn't know anything about the proposed move to Monticello before being contacted by the Deseret News.
And Abbas Fadel, the Cochina Tanning partner who has been working closely with Monticello City, doesn't want to talk about it because "I haven't heard what Monticello has to offer yet."
"So far I have heard nothing from them," Fadel said. "They were supposed to write me a letter (explaining what the city's intentions and conditions are) and they haven't. I need some sort of confirmation from them and I haven't got it."
Monticello, on the other hand, says it has been in contact with Fadel regularly, informing him of the details of the deal and the legal paperwork that is being worked on.
So why move a successful operation from Gallup to Monticello?
"We were told that he was leasing property in New Mexico and wanted to buy it and expand and they wouldn't let him," said Terry, who was under the impression that Cochina was going to pick up and move its operation to Monticello.
But McConnell said that just isn't true. In fact, Gallup has been willing to work with Cochina to acquire the land it needs to expand.
Fadel said there is no intention of moving the Gallup operation to Monticello. Rather Monticello would be a second Cochina plant, a larger one closer to critical hide suppliers in the Monticello area.
While Fadel admits he hasn't approached any other community about the Cochina plant, he added, "It's very premature to say we're moving to Monticello. As far as I'm concerned there is no project."
But Monticello isn't thinking that way. Monticello has gone to the Community Impact Board and secured a $720,000 low-interest loan and a $268,000 grant to fund the purchase of the land. That money is now being held in escrow.
The city, as well as local utilities and businesses, will contribute an additional $183,000 to the project.
The state loan and grant are conditional upon Fadel coming up with $630,000 for a wastewater recycling system and sewer lagoons. And they are conditional upon state approval of the agreement between Cochina and Monticello.
"I have not seen their proposal," Fadel said. "I have not seen those conditions. We may just forget about it."
Which would be bad news for Monticello, a city firmly in the grasp of economic depression. Due to hard times in the uranium industry, the town's population today is about half what it used to be.
Three motels and a handful of restaurants, which are heavily dependent on seasonal tourist traffic, constitute the town's primary source of tax revenue.
"If we weren't located on a crossroads, we might not have made it," said Terry.
But if Cochina locates in Monticello, it could solve the town's economic ills for generations to come. Not only would it become the town's most significant source of tax revenue, but it would provide upward of 200 jobs and bring up to 1,500 new residents to Monticello.
And that is a recipe for prosperity, city officials say.
"It could spell the whole future of the Four Corners," Terry said. "Two hundred jobs to us is like 20,000 to Salt Lake City."
The city's plan is simple: Monticello would purchase and develop an industrial park just east of town, and would then lease the facility to Cochina. Over the course of time, Cochina would purchase the facility from the city, allowing the city to pay off the loan it must take out to buy the industrial park.
Cochina would employ about 200 people in stages over two years in the pickling, tanning and dying stages. Eventually, the operation would be expanded to include a slaughterhouse and garment-manufacturing facility, with the entire operation employing perhaps as many as 400 people.
"I wouldn't publish anything about us moving to to Monticello," McConnell said. "I'm caught a little off guard by this whole thing. It may never happen."