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Drew Clark: Utah is an urban oasis that helps build value for middle class

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 8:16 p.m. MDT

An aerial view of Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 5, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News, KSL-TV Chopper 5

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Salt Lake City – Of all the states in the country, Utah is the eighth-most urban. About nine percent of the population lives in open country or in cities of less than 2,500. That puts us in the company of northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, plus a handful of western states where patterns of settlement emerged near easy access to water resources.

As with the country as a whole, Utah has become more urban over time. The U.S. crossed the threshold from a rural to an urban nation 100 years ago, in the 1910s. Utah followed in the 1920s. The state has subsequently become more urban -- a measure that includes suburban development -- than the country. The interlocking metropolitan statistical areas of Salt Lake City and Provo have grown together in recent decades into a truer metropolis.

What does urbanization say about economic development and opportunity, or about the character of the state and its people?

“Utah presents itself as a rural state with rural, mainstream values,” said Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau. “We take such pride in our pioneer ancestors from the time when Utah was rural and agrarian. When you look at the numbers, we are urban; when you look at the values and our outlook, we embrace that rural heritage.”

But does the heritage obscure the modern reality? Natalie Gochnour, associate dean at the University of Utah’s business school (and fellow columnist at the Deseret News), said that Utahns need to understand that “we are an urban state and we have urban problems.” These include air quality, congestion and inner city strife. Yet it’s also important to leverage the state’s non-urban tourist assets -- its mountains, national parks and ski resorts – as part of an overall economic development package. She wants the Legislature to put on its marketing hat and think about how its decision will better “sell” Utah nation-wide.

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development is certainly doing that. It has a whole section on its web site devoted to “accolades” for the state. There are so many, says a GOED spokesman, that the agency has broken them down into national business rankings, top city rankings, and quality of life rankings – things that measure the value of tourism or voluntarism in making Utah a better place.

The most recent of these, from the last month alone: Five Utah cities among the top 28 in the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s “U.S. Metro Economies Report”; Utah and Idaho being named the top two states for small-business friendliness by the Kaufmann Foundation and Thumbtack; Utah being named the top state for economic dynamism in the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s “New Economy Index;” Utah among the top five states in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Enterprising States 2014;” Utah being the third-best state for retirement; and Salt Lake City being the 13th best city to start a career.

The pace of urbanization isn’t going to change – and that’s a good thing, says Robert Grow, CEO of Envision Utah. As our state and country and world have moved from agriculture to industrial production, and on to the “knowledge work” of the information age, urban advantages outweigh rural benefits or urban vices. Agriculture needs fewer workers, and the opportunities for educated professions are in the cities. It was just in 2005, he said, that the world as a whole became more urban than rural.

Urban thinker and author Joel Kotkin, executive editor of the web site NewGeography.com, believes that Utah creates value through minimal government: “You create a good economic environment for people in your area that is so affordable that the middle-class can still live decently.”

That government-fostered economic climate includes recognizing unique state needs. “Utah, with its high preponderance of families, differs from San Francisco, where there are more dogs than kids,” said Kotkin, who consulted with the U.S. Chamber Foundation on its “Enterprising States” report.

The simple mix of economic opportunity, growth and reasonable prices relative to what people make works wonders for the state, he said. “If you want to live an urban lifestyle like Boston or New York, you do so on minimal scale [in Salt Lake]. The competitive advantage is in single-family houses for middle-class families. That is where Utah does much better than California or New York.”

So the future of Utah is an urban one. That should be welcomed even as we embrace our state’s unique history, resources and population.

Drew Clark is opinion editor of the Deseret News.

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