Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
From time to time, critical voices complain loudly about how Utah needs to abandon its peculiarities and change its image if it is to become serious about recruiting businesses and growing its economy.
While it would be wrong to ignore those voices entirely, it should be abundantly clear by now that a lot of things are right with the Beehive State. The state, and particularly its largest metropolitan areas, continue to grow and prosper in ways most other states must envy.
By now, Forbes Magazine should be no stranger to Utahns. For three years straight, the magazine has ranked Utah as the No. 1 state in the country for doing business. It also recently ranked the Salt Lake area as the 10th-happiest place in the nation to work.
Now a new Forbes report ranks the Salt Lake metro area as the fifth-fastest growing city in the country, using a formula that calculates six metrics from population growth to business productivity, the unemployment rate and median salaries for college-educated workers.
Provo finished seventh and Ogden 20th.
The ranking is significant considering the economic challenges brought on by the recession of 2008 and its aftermath.
The magazine said Salt Lake City's high rank is due to its strong jobs market. The metro area posted a job growth rate of nearly 3 percent last year and has an unemployment rate of only 4.8 percent. It quotes an economist at the University of Utah who said the area has a diverse economy led by technology, biomedical and genetic research, energy and mining concerns.
Success has many fathers. One of the biggest catalysts for this good news is a business-friendly government structure that starts at the state level and repeats itself in counties and cities. Utah has a relatively low tax rate — individuals and corporations each pay a flat 5 percent income tax — and the Wasatch Front boasts an impressive university culture that fosters research and encourages business startups. The mass-transit system, combining buses, light-rail and commuter rail, knits far-flung cities together, which apparently also is a selling point when luring companies.
Tax structure should not be understated. Three of the other top five cities — Houston, Austin and Dallas — are in Texas, a state with no income tax. Utah is not among the states with the lowest overall tax burden, but recent structural changes in tax policy, combined with state leadership that guided Utah through delicate times virtually unscathed, are seen as strengths.
That said, some of the state's critics have strong arguments to consider. Utah could do more, for instance, to improve its public school structure by rethinking procedures and expanding choices.
But even this should be seen as good news. The state has continued to grow during recent economic hard times. Its economy has expanded at 2.3 percent annually since 2006, despite a virtually stagnant growth rate nationally, and it was the fifth fastest growing state in terms of population last year, according to Census figures.
Just think how well the state could do if it solved more of its problems.
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