SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stood before some the state's strongest leaders in business, education and politics Wednesday and offered his people-first assessment of Utah's strong economy:
"Success doesn't just happen," he said as he kicked off the 2017 Economic Review and Policy Summit at the Grand America Hotel. "Good people, good values give us a leg up in developing great policies."
Hosted and organized by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, the summit was part assessment of 2016 and forecast for 2017 as Utah tries to maintain its top economic standing in the nation while capitalizing on a growth rate that will double the population of the Wasatch Front by 2065.
Among the highlights prepared by the Utah Economic Council and presented to the governor:
• An annual employment growth rate of 3.6 percent, above Utah's long-term average and among the best in the nation.
• Every major industrial sector expanded in 2016, adding 49,500 new jobs.
• The state's in-migration of more than 24,000 was the most in 10 years and is expected to continue in 2017.
But the rosy picture is not without its challenges — the need for jobs, water and smart planning set the stage for the policy summit that highlighted the legislative priorities for the Chamber of Commerce and focused attention on areas the state needs to work on.
The governor listed three:
• The state has a low unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, but it's much higher in rural Utah. Employment diversity is needed in areas susceptible to energy downturns, for example.
• Student achievement must improve, and that requires an investment in education funding. "Education is key to long-term success," Herbert said, before others followed showing the political challenge of raising taxes for education, even as a voter initiative drive is planned to raise taxes if the Legislature fails to act.
• Diversifying the revenue stream. He said the tax base is narrowing as more consumers shop online. "So we're losing a couple hundred million dollars a year," the governor said. Solutions on the federal level, as well as changes in the tax code in Utah, could help diversify the revenue stream.
Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, told the hundreds gathered in the hotel's grand ballroom that now is not the time to grow complacent with the state's success.
It's time to "go big" and invest in the future of the state.
She said driving in from a meeting at the Salt Lake City International Airport Wednesday morning, "the underbelly" of the state came clearly into view — the blocked view of the Wasatch Range from haze and pollution.
"I could not see the mountains," she said.
Others in both the public and private sector noted that pollution in Utah, especially during this time of year, is always a part of the conversation when it comes to growth and economic development in the state.
Gochnour also noted the two states of Utah, meaning the growing Wasatch Front and the struggling rural counties; the shrinking middle class; the homeless population in need of solutions; and the need for strong educational outcomes to build a strong workforce.
As the economic report detailed:
"The consensus forecast predicts moderating — but still healthy — job and wage growth, low unemployment and increased net in-migration in 2017. Internal risks to the Utah economy this year and beyond include the supply of workers, education warning signs and air quality."