My view: West Valley City leveraging diversity for international edge

By Mike Winder

Published: Friday, Oct. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The recent census revealed that with a minority population of 45 percent, West Valley City is not only Utah's second largest city, but that we are also the most ethnically diverse city in the state. Of American cities larger than 100,000, only Honolulu has more Pacific Islanders per capita. Our Hispanic population alone is about the size of Murray City, and the number of our Asian, Black and Native American residents totals more people than live in Park City.

Bringing such a diverse population together presents challenges. The census revealed 31 percent of city residents speak a language other than English at home, for example. But we are making a conscious effort to mitigate the challenges and to leverage the advantages of diversity to give our community a distinct edge.

Our English Language Initiative is now in its second year, and hundreds of residents have been recognized in our city council meetings for completing an English class. By city policy, we officially ask anyone who moves to our city to learn English.

Yet, we applaud those who learn languages in addition to English. Thousands of West Valley City students are learning second languages at their neighborhood school or charter school — some of which are teaching Mandarin Chinese or have Spanish immersion classes.

As city leaders, we involve diverse religious leaders in our city meetings and activities, and encourage imams, monks and priests alike to involve their congregations in our vibrant neighborhood associations. As people of different backgrounds get to know each other, we see crime go down, and gang crime is now declining for a sixth straight year in our city.

But perhaps nowhere have we seen the variety of cultures in our community come together like at our city's Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Last weekend we accepted a beautiful gift of an authentic Chinese gate there, with festivities involving hundreds of our residents and performers from a dozen different nationalities. There is nothing like this gate between Chicago and the Pacific coast, yet it is larger than San Francisco's Chinatown gate and is far more artistic and intricate than the Chinese gate on Wentworth Avenue in Chicago.

Our new Chinese Heritage Gate is in good company with other international gifts and artifacts now housed at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. The 6 ton Olmec head, for example, was a gift from the Mexican state of Veracruz. There are only three of these in the U.S. — the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., the Field Museum in Chicago and right here in West Valley City.

Last year, nearly 100,000 visitors came to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center for various heritage events, international art exhibits and exciting cultural programs. Our community has been enriched through sharing our vibrant traditions with each other.

The manifold cultures of West Valley City are having an economic impact, as well. Authentic ethnic flavors give our restaurant and retail scene a variety not enjoyed anywhere else in Utah. We have seen 36 ribbon cuttings this year as new businesses flock to our dynamic, entrepreneurial city. Companies expanding in Utah are increasingly looking to our city for a variety of reasons, including that their diverse workforce feels more at home in our multifarious municipality.

University of Utah demographer Pam Perlich recently noted that our community's cultural and linguistic variety "is a treasure as we try to connect to the outside world in an increasingly global economy." I agree, and so does Lew Cramer, CEO of World Trade Center Utah, who recently told me "West Valley City really gets it, and is using their diversity as a welcome mat to help with international business."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that West Valley City now leads the state in international exports, according to the Governor's Office of Economic Development. Even the capital city does not profit from international trade as much as West Valley City's businesses.

As mayor, I am pleased with the way our city is leveraging its diversity for an international edge. And as a father, I appreciate that our children attend schools in 2012 that are already as diverse as the rest of Utah will be by 2050. Our residents have an opportunity to better prepare for an increasingly global future.

Mike Winder is the mayor of West Valley City.

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