Twelve miles into the heart of a central Utah mountain range and 2,000 feet down, the Utah Across Utah Tour went subterranean this week.
Sufco Mine, just outside Salina, is one of the oldest continuously operating coal mines in the United States. Though renewable energy sources are contributing more and more to powering the nation, coal industry leaders, workers and University of Utah economists note that coal power plants still play a necessary role in providing baseload power for the nation.
“Our vision is to meet the growing global energy demand by supplying low-cost high-quality coal from safe and environmentally responsible operations,” said Carson Pollastro, the chief executive officer of Wolverine Fuels, the company that operates the mine.
On Tuesday, University of Utah President Taylor Randall and university leaders toured Sufco and traveled 12 miles underground to the mine’s seam as part of the fifth leg of his Utah Across Utah tour. The visit to the mine capped off a two-day trip that wound through Utah’s coal country to the recreation gateway community of Moab. Along the way, the group visited Helper’s historic Main Street, a new mural in downtown Price, the Utah State University Eastern Campus in Price, the rPlus Energies Solar Farm just south of Price, the U’s Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa, Arches National Park, the USU Moab Campus and Grand County Extension office, and Dead Horse Point. Read about the Grand County visit here.
Industrial expansion, coal mining and the railroad drew immigrants from around the world to towns like Helper and Price, creating a rich and diverse history. While extracting coal still plays a key role in the economy of some Utah communities, providing the resources needed to diversify the economy of current and historic mining communities is essential, said Robinson, who joined the tour. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the U is supporting this goal through the Coal County Synergy Team.
“Historic mining towns in Carbon and Emery counties played an essential role in building our country,” said Jennifer Robinson, the associate director of the Gardner Institute. “The Coal Country Synergy Team is working to help diversify the economy in this region and secure a bright future for residents.”
Part of the revitalization efforts in Helper includes restoring the buildings on Main Street that house businesses like art galleries and studios.
“The artists you see on Main Street really are birthed from the University of Utah,” said Helper Mayor Lenise Peterman.
In the 90s, U art professors Dave Jordan, Paul Davis and John Erickson purchased a building on Main Street for $12,000 and began hosting art workshops for their students in Helper because of the low cost of living. One of the artists who came to Helper to study with Erickson is Kate Killpatrick, Peterman’s wife and the creative force behind a new mural in Price depicting the history and the people who shaped Carbon County.
“The artist’s presence has really been integral to what I call our comeback story,” Peterman said. “We are so thankful for it. It’s another attribute that we look to expand on as we are trying to survive here in rural Utah.”
Following the visit to Helper, the group traveled a few miles down the road to view the nearly completed piece of public art. The mural is slated to be finished in time for a community celebration on Saturday. During the visit to Price, Randall announced a $5,000 donation to support the city’s downtown historic district.
This contribution is the latest in a series of financial investments the university has made in Price over the past few years as part of the American Dream Ideas Challenge. Kem C. Gardner, the name donor and an advisory board member for the Gardner Institute, matched the university’s donation during the tour.
“We hope that partnership that began with the American Dreams Ideas Challenge will continue,” Randall said. “That partnership doesn’t work without local officials that have a vision. We didn’t bring the vision; it was our pleasure to support the vision the community had.”
While the communities have made important progress on that vision, there are still crucial steps to be taken. Affordable housing, updating infrastructure, mitigating drought, and ensuring residents have adequate access to water are just some of the next issues to address. Though finding the solutions can be challenging, for leaders like Mayor Peterman, the work is all about making sure the rising generation has the option to continue to make a home in the place they were raised.
“That’s ideally what I’d like to see for all of our kids — to come back.”