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In our opinion: Bringing the heartland here

Published: Monday, March 14 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Will it play in Peoria?

That used to be the question to ask if one wanted a sense of how middle-America felt about something. The Midwest was the center of American population and, therefore, the touchstone of mainstream American values. The 2010 Census makes it clear that this is changing.

In not too many years, the question may be, will it play in Peoria, Ariz.; or Boise, Idaho; or even Provo, Utah? The four fastest growing states in the union are Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho. If you add Texas and California to the mix, you account for more than a quarter of the nation's population. The forecast calls for nothing but more growth. Arizona may surpass Ohio in congressional representation by 2040. The interior West will be helped by California, which didn't gain any congressional seats this time around because much of its population has decided to move to neighboring states to the east. That trend seems to be continuing.

The result of all this will be greater clout in national politics and greater focus from media and other sources — along with all the other issues that come with growth. In recent years, Utah's leaders have tried to form a western states primary election for the presidency, arguing that candidates rarely have to consider the unique issues people in this region consider important. For the most part, the effort has fizzled. Utah's last presidential primary, in February of 2008, was overshadowed by primaries in larger states on the same day. As time goes by, however, such a coalition would be harder to ignore as the interior West begins to accumulate more electoral votes.

Utah still would be ignored in that mix unless it becomes more politically diverse. States that are safely pigeon-holed as belonging to one party or the other don't merit much concern from candidates. But even that might change with the demographics.

Much of the growth in the West has come because of an influx of Hispanic residents. In seven of the eight Mountain states, including Utah, Hispanics made up more than half the growth in population under the age of 18 during the last decade. The demographic shift is bound to effect the area's culture, as well as its politics.

All this growth means more than just political and cultural changes. The Brookings Institute issued a report in 2008 about four emerging urban centers in the West, with the area from Logan to Provo identified as one. These, the study said, will become "Mountain Megas," or huge population centers that will grow by a combined 12.7 million residents and more than 8 million jobs between now and 2040.

The report suggested greater cooperation among these Megas to help economic growth, including the establishment of regional boards for transportation and other matters. The challenges lie in education, infrastructure, planning, development and economic opportunities for the disadvantaged, among other things. Clearly, there is much opportunity ahead, and also much work.

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