The Wasatch Front seems never to lack for critics who see it as boring or too uptight to be attractive to outsiders, and yet it keeps growing.
Newly released Census figures show the Provo-Orem area was the fourth fastest growing metro area of more than a half million people in the nation during the past decade, increasing its population by 39.8 percent to 526,810. The Salt Lake City area grew by 16 percent to 1,124,197, and the Ogden-Clearfield area grew by 23.6 percent to 547,184. Add them all together (the Census doesn't consider the economic interdependence of Wasatch Front communities, which is obvious to anyone who lives and commutes here) and you have a greater metro block of 2,198,191. If the Census figured things that way, the area would rank just between Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, Ore., and Sacramento.
Clearly, the communities of northern Utah must be doing something right. Southern Utah is doing things right, as well. Washington County grew by 56.9 percent.
A closer look at the numbers reveals how the state is changing. Salt Lake County, for instance, is now 17.1 percent Hispanic. Clearly, the state's growth was the result of much more than its unusually high birth rate. But, as much as anything else, the Hispanic influx reflects the availability of jobs during the past decade, and Utah's metropolitan areas have consistently ranked high on surveys that measure business-friendly conditions and livability.
The overall metro Census numbers show that Americans are moving to places with affordable housing and low-density urban cores. The big, bustling cities with apartment cliff-dwellers didn't fare as well during the decade. Americans still seem to be searching for the traditional detached family home with a yard, boring as that might seem to some.
But beyond all else, the availability of jobs was a catalyst for growth. Figures from the last decade can be a bit deceiving because some areas experienced a lot of growth during the first part of the decade, only to give some of it back after the recession hit. One metro area, New Orleans, suffered such devastation from a mid-decade hurricane that hasn't recovered, losing 11.3 percent of its people for the decade.
Utah's metro areas seem to have been less affected by the recession than many, despite an obvious increase in unemployment and some reduction in real estate values. Salt Lake and Utah counties report housing vacancy rates at about 5 percent. St. George has a more troubling 19.7 percent.
The lesson from all this is that Utah should continue to position itself as friendly to businesses — both startups and those that are relocating — through low tax rates and a minimum of regulatory red tape. It also should revel in just being itself, a family friendly place attractive to children, even if some people continue to find that worthy of criticism.