How A Former Airport Is Helping The Tech Ecosystem of St. George, Utah To Fly
Over 20 years in the birthing, St. George, Utah’s Tech Ridge is an emerging, mixed-use development designed to transform the tech ecosystem of southern Utah.
According to local legend, Maurice Graham was the first person to land a plane on what was then known as Black Hill over 100 years ago, the roughly mile-and-a-half-long raised island of volcanic rock sitting immediately west of the center of St. George, Utah.
It turns out that Black Hill didn’t officially become an actual airport for another 20 years with the formal launch of the St. George Municipal Airport in 1937 as the Department of Commerce’s Site 34 along the Los Angeles – Salt Lake Airway.
However, Black Hill no longer serves as the site of the primary airport serving St. George and Washington County. Instead, that’s the new St. George Regional Airport which is roughly six miles to the southeast, as the crow flies.
Conversely, Black Hill is in the midst of major transformation as it’s being built-out into a mixed-use development called Tech Ridge, an area city leaders hope will attract enough technology-centric businesses and individuals to produce over $3 billion in new revenue annually for southern Utah.
The Birth of Tech Ridge
By 2020, that number had ballooned to over 95,000, a jump of more than 40X in the ensuing century. [NOTE: Washington County is currently home to over 180,000 citizens.]
But if the projections of Dixie State University and its president, Dr. Richard B. Williams, are correct, St. George residents and city leaders should expect to see the population of their fair city explode to the size of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in the not too distant future.
That’s over 300,000 residents in St. George alone, a trebling of its current population.
Such population growth, coupled with both the increasing levels of tourism to greater southern Utah, as well as the fact that the landlocked nature of the St. George Municipal Airport, made it abundantly clear to local leaders that future air transportation needs could not be met by “old” Black Hill based facilities.
Hence, following years of studies, planning, negotiations, and construction, the St. George Regional Airport opened in 2011.
The question, then, became what to do with the old airport site atop Black Hill mesa.
Fast forward five years to 2016 when city leaders approached several local tech entrepreneurs with an interesting premise:
“What if we turned the old airport into a tech park?”
By November 2017, following an open RFP process, the city selected Tech Ridge, LLC to lead the mixed-use development efforts for the 180 acres sitting atop the Black Hill mesa.
This coincided quite nicely with efforts that were already significantly along to create a 30-acre campus for Dixie Technical College, one of eight technical colleges in Utah led by the Utah System of Higher Education.
Housed on the former airport site, Dixie Tech began with two primary buildings with 100,000 and 62,000 square feet, respectively, for office and industrial purposes.
Isaac Barlow: The Man Leading the Tech Ridge Development
As we visited, Barlow explained that there are really three main purposes for creating Tech Ridge as a destination, mixed-use development targeting technology companies:
- Help establish, grow, and retain technology-centric companies in southern Utah, which will
- Grow and diversify the tax base of St. George, while also
- Helping these tech companies recruit and retain top talent, personnel that otherwise might be tempted to move out of the area.
When pressed, Barlow admitted that the easiest solution for dealing with the old airport would have been to simply build multi-million-dollar houses on the mesa.
“Fortunately the city leaders were smarter than that and they said, ‘What can we do to establish a tech center? We want to create a tech center that will have an economic benefit for the future for all of the city of St. George and surrounding area.’”
From Dream to Reality
Barlow explained that at full buildout, Tech Ridge is expected to generate annual revenue of $3.5 billion.
By contrast, all of Washington County currently produces ~$6.5 billion in revenue annually, meaning that if projections prove correct, the Tech Ridge ecosystem by itself will boost local revenue by over 50%.
“Tech Ridge would be a big economic generator in Utah County, but it’s a monster in Washington County.”
Isaac Barlow, founder/owner of TechRidge, LLC and CEO of busybusy
As shown in the image above, when fully built-out, Tech Ridge is expected to house
- 1 million square feet of office space,
- 250,000 square feet of retail space,
- 600 hotel rooms (between two separate properties), and
- 2,400 multi-family residential units.
In total, Tech Ridge is expected to support 6,000 high-paying jobs, with 250 positions currently filled by the four tech companies already housed on-site (Zonos, Vasion, Intergalactic, and busybusy), with 550 employees expected by 2023.
The planned Tech Ridge ecosystem is expected to produce a one-time economic benefit of nearly $2.5 billion in construction costs alone, with over 19,000 workers required to build everything on the Black Hill site.
Interestingly, of the 180 usable acres atop the mesa, the approved master plans include 60 acres set aside for trails, parks, and open spaces, including a 5K trail system.
“We’re playing to the strengths of St. George,” Barlow said. “If you want to live in St. George, a large probability is because you like the climate and you like the outdoors, and that’s the kind of person you are. And so when we’re attracting top talent as tech companies, we look for that. (And we say) you can be outside when you want.”
The goal is to create Tech Ridge as a walkable community, Barlow explained. So when it’s completed, there will be no parking lots—underground parking and under-building parking, but no sprawl, something he said will be new for Washington County.
Having now had a personal visit and an on-site data dump from Barlow about the vision for Tech Ridge, as well as his passion for what the former St. George Municipal Airport can become, I can say I was totally blown away and impressed.
And mark my words, if Isaac Barlow ever decides to run for public office in Washington County, I think he’ll be a shoo-in.
To watch the full interview of Isaac Barlow, please click here to watch this episode of “Conversations” on SiliconSlopes.tv. Conversely, you can also listen to this interview on your favorite podcast provider at “Silicon Slopes Conversations;” case in point, via this link on Apple podcasts.