In our opinion: Utah set to be a boom state, but be careful what you ask for

Published: Monday, June 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The City Creek Center opens in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 22, 2012.

Photo by Laura Seitz, Photo by Laura Seitz

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Utah is among a small number of states ready to experience an economic boom, according to a recent analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That's good news, but the kind of good news that comes with a caveat: be careful what you ask for.

The Chamber says the state is poised to thrive in coming years by virtue of a burgeoning tech sector and an explosion in exports. The study also cites the state's lenient business regulatory structure, relatively low cost of living and its many lifestyle attractions.

We've seen this movie before, during the boom years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's important the sequel is scripted with a happy ending.

The last spurt of economic growth in Utah saw a 33 percent increase in jobs between 1987 and 1991 — three times greater than the national average. There was a 75 percent increase in construction jobs during that time, and while housing costs remained relatively low, they rose significantly as demand kept a step or two ahead of supply.

People go where the jobs are, and if the promise of a new boom comes true, it will bring a fresh wave of new residents. They will need places to live, parks to play in, schools for their children and all of the attending infrastructure new growth demands. Growth breeds more growth, and new jobs will be created to service those who come here for job opportunities.

But this boom will be different. There are now barriers to accommodating an influx of population that were not so entrenched two and a half decades ago. The farms and ranchlands that were ploughed under for subdivisions along the Wasatch Front are now scarce. In drought years, we already worry about whether there's enough water to serve the people who live here now, let alone those who may arrive. Air quality will be a malignant concern going forward, in any scenario. The canyons of the Cottonwoods and other natural features that contribute to an attractive lifestyle are already under pressure from heavy use.

The next boom will accelerate a trend we have begun to witness in real time: the urbanization of a metropolitan area that not so long ago was a mix of rural and suburban.

Having said all that, there are reasons to be optimistic about the impacts of a future boom. Civic planning is now much more top of mind, with most municipal and county governments dedicating more resources to managing growth than in the past.

We have invested heavily and wisely in mass transit, a commitment that will have to continue if not accelerate in the wake of new growth. There has also been a strong commitment to our roads, witnessed by I-15 reconstruction in Utah County and the new Mountain View Corridor, an artery along the western reaches of Salt Lake and Utah counties, where there is still room left for new housing.

Salt Lake City's "sustainability" initiative and developments like Daybreak in South Jordan are examples of a new ethic in civic planning, one that anticipates a changing dynamic in living patterns.

All in all, we prefer booms to busts. For a variety of reasons, we have a leg up on the rest of the country when it comes to the prospects of prosperity. If the predictions are accurate, we are about to embark on a path of significant transformation. It is a journey we need to undertake with eyes wide open.

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