An ancient cowboy ambles out of waist-high grasslands with the Wasatch Mountains as a backdrop, politely doffs his hat and flashes his best "Ah, shucks" grin.

"Some folks think Utah's a little bit different. Well, I don't know - maybe they're right," the man drawls. "Why, from the salty sea to the snowy peaks, Utah's got to be the most unique place on the face of the Earth."Horses gallop by as he muses, but there's no need to risk mud and manure to learn more about the state's finer points or the upcoming 2002 Winter Games - or that, yes, you can get a drink in Utah.

This excursion is being spun onto your computer screen from the new "Utah Here and Now" CD-ROM, a flashy, high-tech production aimed at selling the Beehive State to the world. At a cost of $65,000, the CD was commissioned by the state and two major Utah-based corporations, Iomega and Evans & Sutherland Computer Corp.

What you won't learn from the CD is that Utah is 70 percent Mormon, a fact unmentioned. Instead, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is merely listed as one of 80 established faiths that "coexist in Utah."

That was by design, says the CD's executive producer, Kimberly Jones of Verite Multimedia. The same is true of the choice of a rather ecumenical picture of the sun peaking through the clouds to open the "religious options" section - instead of Salt Lake's most-recognized landmark, the historic LDS Temple.

"It's not meant necessarily to downplay the LDS Church but to play up the fact that there's more diversity here than there ever was before," Jones said. "We decided on an informational, spiritual approach rather than organizational."

The church had no input on the CD, though spokesman Mike Otterson was unconcerned about the 10 million-member faith's meager treatment in the presentation.

"We are what we are. I think it will get due attention," he said.

The decision to de-emphasize LDS influence in Utah was "99 percent unanimous," Jones said, even though half of the 14 members of the panel that oversaw the CD's creation are members of the predominant faith.

There was controversy over how to portray the availability of alcohol, which is shunned by practicing Mormons. The CD's "social scene" section - opening with a picture of a bottle-wielding man and woman at a party - was adopted only after much debate.

"In the interest of brevity, we can answer many of the most frequently asked questions with one simple answer. . . . Yes, you can!" the section's text reads. A following page, dominated by a huge mug of frothy ale, notes that Salt Lake City has 175 "pubs, clubs and libation emporiums."

Unmentioned is the fact that Utah has some of the nation's strictest liquor laws. Grocery stores can sell only 3.2 beer, while wine and distilled spirits are limited to state liquor stores and a restricted number of licensed restaurants and private clubs.

"It was a tough, tough thing," Jones said. "But I think we did a nice job of walking several tightropes."

Spence Kinard, assistant director of the Utah Travel Council, wanted the alcohol issue sidestepped entirely but lost out to panel members who saw liquor availability as a prime selling point.

"There are a lot of misperceptions about Utah," Kinard said, citing not only the state's alcohol restrictions but exaggerations about LDS dominance and the practice of polygamy, which the church disavowed in 1890.

"Those are the old standby cliches," he said. "The more we try to convince people what we aren't, the more it seems to come up. I suggested we just ignore those issues.

"My message is, leave it alone. . . . Once people come here, they'll know we're pretty normal."

Peter Genereaux, president of the Utah Information Technologies Association, didn't think a state planning to welcome the world four years hence could afford to wait.

"The neat thing about the CD is that it gives the viewer the proper perception rather than just ignoring it," he said. "It's a conscious effort to make Utah seem like a place where there's opportunity for all."

Genereaux said his 4,500-member organization has supported the CD and its arguably secular approach from the start.

"It doesn't matter if you're black, white, green, LDS or otherwise," he said. "We wanted to portray Utah as a superior place to live, work and recreate."

Dr. George Van Komen, chairman of the grass-roots Alcohol Policy Coalition, says Utah's cultural and religious sensitivities are largely responsible for making it a good place to live.

His 40-member group is campaigning to ban the "beer tents" seen in past Olympics and to restrict brew ads to commercial areas only during the 2002 Winter Games.

"We think the issue is our culture and heritage, our family orientation," Van Komen said. "We're the lowest alcohol-consuming state by far in the nation. That fact alone brings out the difference between Utah and the rest of the world."

Whatever the approach, Salt Lake City is due for a flood of questions about all aspects of life here as the Games near, said Shelley Thomas, communications vice president for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Thomas, who visited the recent Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, said the SLOC received more than 100 inquiries a day at its offices there - a fraction of what organizers can expect.

Marketing tools like the CD, along with television, radio and print spots, will all be needed to answer those curious about Utah.

"I don't think there's a bigger stage than the Olympics," Thomas said. "The scope, the media attention, is incredible."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

CD-ROM seeks to dispel myths about Utahns

"The whole thing is to make people aware of what Utah has to offer to businesses and employees who may want to relocate. There are a lot of misperceptions about Utah, and not just drinking, but Utah in general." - Spence Kinard, assistant director, Utah Travel Council

"The assumption is that everyone outside of Utah drinks and drinks heavily. But 35 percent of all Americans choose not to drink any alcoholic beverage, and 10 percent of those who do consume 70 percent of the alcohol produced in this country. . . . That top percentage is where all the complaints are coming from." - Dr. George Van Komen, chairman, Alcohol Policy Coalition

"Many faiths co-exist in Utah. Currently 80 established religious groups are practicing here." - "Religious Options" section of the CD-ROM, "Utah Here and Now." It goes on to list the Mormon church along with Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Buddist and Islamic congregations.

Source: Associated Press