January 1, 2013

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Deep Roots

Enduring Businesses That Have Become Mainstays In Their Communities

Heather Stewart

January 1, 2013

Although 80 percent of the jobs in Utah are based along the Wasatch Front, rural Utah is dotted with successful, enduring businesses. Providing important services and valuable job opportunities, these companies are the backbone of small-town Utah.

We scoured the state and found numerous examples of such companies. Here are the inspiring stories of just a few.

Powering Rural Landscapes
In the 1930s, south central Utah and northern Arizona still did not have access to electricity in their homes and businesses. The community decided to create a cooperative electric company—a utility that is owned by its customers. Thus was born Garkane Energy (named after Garfield and Kane counties). Its first electric lines were built in 1938 and the system was energized in 1939, says Carl Albrecht, CEO of Garkane Energy.

Since those humble beginnings, the cooperative has grown and matured, and now serves about 14,000 members with 3,000 miles of line in six Utah counties and two northern Arizona counties—from Fish Lake in the north to the Grand Canyon in the south.

“Most of our service area is made up of public lands—about 90 percent,” says Albrecht. In fact, Garkane Energy serves more national parks and monuments than any other utility in the country.

The rural setting, abundance of public lands and thin population density creates several challenges for the utility. “It becomes quite costly—our investment per customer,” says Albrecht. “And we don’t have a lot of large industrial customers to support the system.”

Acquiring right-of-ways through public lands is another major obstacle. Garkane just acquired a right-of-way in Garfield County and the process took seven years and cost the utility $2 million in environmental impact studies, says Albrecht. The process was so long and expensive because the 30-mile right-of-way ran through Bryce Canyon, the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, U.S. Forest Service lands, other federal land and state land.

And when a power line in a national park is damaged, it may involve helicopters and specially trained personnel to access and repair the line.

Despite these challenges, Albrecht says, “We have been able to keep our rate very comparable to the other utilities that surround us—and slightly lower than Rocky Mountain Power.”

And on top of low rates, members actually get a refund from the company if its revenues exceed its expenses at the end of the year. Over the years, Garkane has refunded $8 million to its members; this year, it distributed $500,000 back to customers in the form of a credit on their bill.

Albrecht says the company is preparing for future population growth in the region. While the Great Recession temporarily put the brakes on growth, “we were growing quite rapidly until the downturn,” he says. “In the past five years, we’ve probably spent $10 to $12 million in new infrastructure to deal with the growth.”

The company is nearing its 75-year anniversary, and Albrecht says it is proud to be so interwoven in the economic fabric of south central Utah and northern Arizona.

Pioneers in the Valley
Few outside Cache Valley would guess that a decades-old, pioneering coffee roaster with a global market was based in Logan. The company, Caffe Ibis, traces its beginnings to 1976, when Sally Sears and Randy Wirth opened the Straw Ibis Herb & Grain Company, a small natural foods store that featured bulk bins of grains, spices and beans, along with specialty coffees.

Neither of the pair were Utah natives—they met while attending Utah State University. The couple married and decided to stay in Cache Valley. “We couldn’t leave,” says Sears. “It was far too beautiful.”

Over the years, the company transitioned into a specialty coffee roaster. “Coffee was our No. 1 selling item. We went from natural foods into specialty foods and gourmet foods, but coffee was always our No. 1 selling item,” she says.

At the time, the organic coffee movement was still in its infancy. But Sears and Wirth were committed to supporting organic farming practices. “We were among the earliest certified organic roasters in America,” says Wirth. Additionally, the company was one of the original six “fair trade” roasters in the country.

Now, the company’s coffee is “triple certified” as organic, fair trade and Smithsonian shade-grown bird-friendly.

Along with a mission to support social justice and environmental stewardship, Caffe Ibis is deeply committed to the quality of its coffees. While it has clients throughout the country and in Asia—including some of the largest natural foods store chains in the United States—the company still focuses on small-batch, on-demand production.

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