After three decades of working with the Six County Association of Governments, Russ Cowley is stepping down and retiring.
“I feel like it’s time to pass the torch,” Cowley said. He said new blood in the organization will help foster new ideas and help Six County as it adapts to the future needs of the region.
For the past 22 years, Cowley has served as the executive director of Six County. He started with the organization working as an economic developer.
In his time with the AOG, Cowley has seen a lot of changes. When he first started, there were two computers in the building, and he asked if he could requisition one for his department. He was told, “If you get one, next thing you know everyone is going to want a computer,” Cowley said. “We’ve gone from the days of secretaries taking dictations … to now we’re paperless in the office.”
Cowley grew up in Venice, and went on to earn a degree in business administration and human resource management. Then he came home and went back to work on the farm.
“I thought that I should start working in my field of study,” Cowley said. So he found a job in California and made the move, but it didn’t last long.
“There was something I couldn’t put my finger on that I didn’t like about it,” Cowley said. One day on the drive back to Venice to visit family, Cowley said he was tired and pulled over near Clear Creek to get some fresh air. He looked up, and it became apparent why he wasn’t happy in California.
“I could see the sky; you couldn’t see the sky in California,” Cowley said. So when the position of economic developer with Six County came open in 1989, he applied.
“I think the greatest thing about this job is working with all the elected officials,” Cowley said. He said he has enjoyed his association with county commissioners, mayors, congressional representatives and others as they have worked to address the region’s needs.
AOGs started in Utah 50 years ago and have been vital in helping rural areas secure federal funding for programs.
“It’s not an additional layer of government,” said Travis Kyhl, deputy executive director. Kyhl will take over the role of executive director from Cowley this week.
Six County has a divergent mission including aging services, community planning, economic development, housing, human services and transportation planning.
“Our job is to help small governments to do the things they can’t do on their own,” Kyhl said.
The regional approach has allowed for housing projects, such as the mutual self help program. It also has programs for people who qualify with critical remodel needs on existing homes, such as sewer and water line projects.
Six County is also the only AOG in the state that runs senior centers — 12 in all.
The organization also aids with economic development by helping local governments find and access resources.
“One of the best things we’ve done in the region is for each county to hire an economic development manager,” Cowley said.
One of the toughest jobs in rural Utah is economic development, Cowley said. Utah is a state that is 90 percent metro and most of the growth in the state occurs in urban areas. He said the challenge is in trying to funnel some of that growth to the rural areas.
“The needs are always there,” Cowley said.
Six County is one of seven AOGs in the state, and covers an area of approximately 17,000 square miles, with 77,000 people.
Another program Six County spearheads is a congressional briefing, which has been held for the past 18 years, Cowley said.
“We bring people from Washington and show them on the ground what the public lands are,” Cowley said. The goal is to put a face on local public lands issues with congressional staffers who may not have ever been on an ATV.
“One of the things Russ has done a great job with is putting Six County on the map,” Kyhl said. He said people across the country, due to Cowley’s involvement in national organizations and congressional outreach, know Six County’s issues.
During these meetings, Cowley recruits his wife to help.
“She’s been the best support I could ever ask for,” Cowley said. He said his wife plans activities and acts as a host to the family members who travel with congressional staffers and others to meetings involving the AOG.
“Deb and I both go back five generations in these valleys,” Cowley said. “It’s been rewarding to support these areas our ancestors helped settle.”
Newell Harward, a county commissioner from Wayne County, currently serves as the chair of the AOG’s executive board.
“I’ve known Russ for a long time,” Harward said. He said that Russ’s work with the AOG has helped businesses start in Wayne County that have gone on to be successful.
“He always works to make sure we are well informed,” Harward said.
Russ and his wife have three children and four grandchildren.
An open house in Russ’s honor is set for Wednesday, Oct. 16, from 1 to 3:30 p.m., at the Sevier County Administration Building, 250 North Main in Richfield.