Southern Utah University hosted the 33rd annual Utah Rural Summit on Monday and Tuesday at the Hunter Conference Center, celebrating resilience in rural communities amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This year’s Utah Rural Summit was not like any other,” said Director of the Utah Rural Summit Melynda Thorpe.
Beginning Monday evening, state leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and rural business owners from across Utah participated in speaking events, panels, social gatherings and award ceremonies, highlighting small businesses and innovations made within the last year.
Speakers offered strategies and advice about leadership, rural economic development and overcoming new challenges that have surfaced because of the pandemic, all discussed in terms of the summit’s theme ‘resilience.’
In regards to the theme, the official program for the event read, “This year, more than ever in our state’s history, we celebrate our ability to recover quickly. In real time, we are finding ways to pivot, renegotiate, climb, and to unite. Here in Utah, resilience is at the very core of who we are.”
In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the amount of in-person attendance was cut to about 50% of what it has been in recent years, according to Thorpe. She explained that six foot social distancing guidelines were enforced and that participants were sorted into color-coded groups that they stayed in during the entirety of the event in order to simplify contact tracing.
The event also broadcast online to rural communities across the state so that more people could participate remotely. Thorpe said that this is the first time they have had a live virtual audience.
She expressed that seeing communities across the state of Utah congregate and share business practices under unique circumstances was a perfect reflection of the summit’s theme.
“It is fascinating to see how Utah has been resilient during COVID-19. It is the perfect time for us to come together, and as small communities throughout the state be able to say this is how we have been resilient,” said Thorpe. “When we start putting all of those stories together, which is exactly what we are doing, we see… all the resiliency and all the innovation in a time that really we are struggling as a country and as a world.”
Thorpe and her team began planning the summit about six months ago. While they never considered canceling the event, they knew that they would have to adapt for safety, which Thorpe shared was their number one priority.
These adaptations included requiring attendees to only socialize between events outdoors and checking all participants’ temperatures before the summit began.
Community members and SUU students volunteered to help operate the event. Rita Osborne, the executive director of the Utah Center for Rural Health, and Briget Eastep, the executive director of Outdoor Pathways, developed the COVID-19 safety plan for the summit. SUU rural health scholar students helped implement temperature checks for all the attendees.
“It was very well-orchestrated, a lot of details came together. It is just about having the right people on the team and them taking responsibility on the day of the event. It is magical how it all comes together,” said Thorpe.
The Utah Rural Summit began as a partnership between the state of Utah and SUU, bringing Utah’s top leaders together to discuss the economic viability of rural Utah. It is meant to give rural businesses a place to share and discuss best practices.
“How the rural summit is designed to serve rural communities and businesses is to highlight innovation—to highlight the new, the industrious, the entrepreneur and the things that are working in our communities. So when we all come together as small communities within the state, we learn from each other,” said Thorpe.
She believes that SUU provided a safe venue for small business owners, who have taken an especially heavy toll because of the economic effect of the pandemic, to come together with state leaders, learn from one another and plan for future innovations.
Story and Photos By: Lainey Cartwright