Mayor Palmer DePaulis has to navigate downtown building sites like anyone else. But while others barely glance at yet another unsightly crane, DePaulis sees a beautiful bird above the concrete.

Never mind that unseen market forces and economic statistics provide the real indicators that Utah is bucking a national recession. The steel hulks seem to reflect the optimistic economic picture."We're really proud of it," said DePaulis, ticking off block numbers and square footage with exuberance.

His tour includes the triangular-topped One Utah Center, the new Jazz arena, where construction crews labor around the clock, and the beams and girders taking shape as Broadway Centre a couple blocks from City Hall.

Economic `pink cheeks'

While city leaders and chambers of commerce view the changing cityscape with glee, economists haul out models and graphs to explain the activity actually responsible for the economy's pink cheeks.

It is measured in numbers like new job growth, levels of unemployment, income growth and overall construction activity. And right now Utah is at the top of a crest in each of those areas, said Kelly Matthews, senior vice president and economist for First Security Corp.

"One of the key things to understand, however, is that it's not so much that we missed the recession, just that we've sort of already been through it," he said.

Utah job growth nill in mid-80s

While many parts of the country were growing rapidly from 1986-88, Utah languished with other Western states hurt by the letdown in the oil industry. The state experienced overbuilding, declining real estate values, failures of five thrift and loans and shutdowns of such industry mainstays as Kennecott Copper and Geneva Steel. Unemployment hovered around 7.5 percent.

About that time, DePaulis and city planners took a deep breath and began plotting strategies for a few key projects "because there weren't any pressures for gangbusters development."

The focus was the Jazz arena, which the city wanted to keep downtown, and the Block 57 area, which one of the two new skyscrapers will anchor as headquarters for Utah Power & Light and a large law firm.

Copper and steel fuel comeback

As the city planned, the state's economy began to right itself by late 1988 with the comeback of the copper and steel firms.

Out-migration ended, jobs were created, real estate vacancies fell and economists soon started tracking a dramatic increase in employment - first in computer services, then in telecommunications industries.

"All of those things started to turn around in late 1988 and there were very strong growth years in 1989 and 90. It covers all sectors of the economy," said Thayne Robson, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Utah.

Last year, the economy was stronger than it had been since the early 1980s.

"It was an aggressive effort by the state and the city and our economic development committees. We've really pulled together and done a fine job," DePaulis said.

Diverse economy bucks U.S. trend

"Another part to it is that we often do buck the trend. We had been subject to a lot of pressures that are now gone, and we're on a much more diversified economy reaching out internationally and diversifying and getting people to look at us more," he said.

No one will characterize the situation as a boom, although the state and most of its Western neighbors continue to thrive in 1991.

Despite recent layoffs implemented or announced by large employers such as Hill Air Force Base and Eastern Airlines, Utah's unemployment rate dropped a tenth of a point to 4.4 percent in February.

The state also is generating employment at a rate of 4.8 percent, surpassing the Department of Employment Security's projections of 4.2, said Lecia Parks Langston, chief economist with the agency.

Manufacturing on the upswing

Analysts are thrilled by the 3 percent growth in manufacturing, an industry that has steadily lost jobs nationally and is typically the first to feel a recessionary squeeze.

"We've been doing well because of the growth of the service sector," Robson said. "Service industries account for well over 70 to 75 percent of all growth."

Utah was among the three top states in the country for job growth last year, said Matthews, who believes the growth will keep up no matter which direction the national economy takes.

"Clearly the growth rates in 1991 will be less rapid in Utah than 1990, but relative to other states and the national average we continue to do well. If the United States improves, then our growth rates here will improve right along with it. If it doesn't, then our growth rates won't be as fast, but we'll still be near the top," he said.