“IT PROTECTED LINKS behind its mountains of ramparts, sheltered from physical and intellectual storms on both coasts, ”Wallace Stegner wrote of Salt Lake City. The novelist associated his adopted hometown, where he spent much of the 1920s and 1930s, with an “isolationism” and “provincialism” offered by his Mormon heritage and his comfortable seat between the Wasatch Range and the Grand salt lake. These characteristics remain; but gaze at the city’s bustling downtown today from a perch in the nearby foothills and Salt Lake feels far from provincial. There are few places in America that can boast their successes over the past decade more than the City of Saints.
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Utah’s population grew faster than any other state between 2010 and 2020. Salt Lake City has the lowest unemployment rate of any major city, at 2.8%, compared to a national rate of 5 , 2%. If the state has rebounded so well from the slowdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic, it’s thanks to the Wasatch Front, an urban corridor that includes Salt Lake and Provo, home to Brigham Young University. The four counties that make up the Wasatch Front account for at least 80% of Utah’s economic activity, said Juliette Tennert, an economist at the University of Utah.
In many ways, Salt Lake’s success mirrors what is happening in other Mountain West cities, such as Boise, Idaho and Denver, Colorado. What makes Utah so special? For starters, it has the most diverse economy of any state, according to the Hachman Index, which measures each state’s mix of industries relative to that of the nation. In fact, Utah has been in the top two for most of the past two decades, says Tennert. Front Wasatch has a booming technology sector known as “Silicon Slopes”, several research universities and an international airport.
Utah’s ability to attract new business is aided by its Republican zeal for a low corporate tax rate and little regulation. But putting Salt Lake City on the map also required breaking the myths. Gary Herbert, the former governor, considers 2002, when Salt Lake hosted the Olympic Winter Games, to be a pivotal moment. “It was kind of our coming out night,” he says. People realized that “we are not the Wild West here in Utah”.
The researchers also note Utah’s relative homogeneity as a reason for its success. It can be easier for people to get along when they share a religious and cultural background. But the state is changing rapidly. Although about 61% of Utah’s population is a Mormon, that number is dropping all the time. About 48% of Salt Lake County residents identify as Mormons; the city itself, which is more diverse, probably has even fewer. Utah is the youngest state in the country, but its fertility rate is declining faster than the national average, says Emily Harris, a demographer. Attracting and retaining new Utahns will become increasingly important as births decline.
Three things threaten Salt Lake City‘s ability to attract and retain new residents. The first concerns environmental issues. Americans may relocate to Salt Lake for its proximity to hiking trails and fancy ski resorts, but the Wasatch front is plagued with pollution. Smoke from wildfires, heavy traffic and drying lake bed dust dirty the air. Utah is also counting on dwindling reservoirs due to the mega-drought that has dehydrated most of the West.
Second, Salt Lake City is becoming unaffordable for many longtime residents. House prices have risen nearly 25% since August 2020, according to Zillow, an online advertising platform. (Nationwide, home values have increased by almost 18% on average.) Erin Mendenhall, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake, offers high housing costs as proof that rapid growth does not benefit everyone. world.
Third, Utah consistently ranks among the worst states in the country for gender equality. An annual index from WalletHub, a consumer-oriented website, found the gender pay gap in Utah to be larger than in most other states. Women in Utah are also less likely to graduate from college or be elected to political office. That Utah is so lagging behind is likely due to the enduring influence of the Mormon Church and the tendency of believers to marry young and have large families. Still, the future looks brighter: As the state diversifies and begins to look more like America, women should benefit.
The Utahns are not at all surprised that their condition is booming. “The Salt Lakers generally like to fly under the radar,” says Mendenhall. “Part of who we are in our city is knowing that we are the best kept secret. This may be historically true, but the ever-expanding Front Wasatch suggests the secret is out. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Not your Father’s Utah”