In the economic boom that thundered through Utah over the past few years, many people saw a kind of perfect chemistry at work.
What demographers call Utah's special story its population is the youngest in the nation by far and one of the fastest growing, mainly from large Mormon families was paying off, melding with a surging engine of growth in Utah's back yard and throughout the world.
Between November 2006 and November 2007, Utah created more jobs than Pennsylvania, a state five times bigger in population. Construction spiked at the same time as a giant wave of 20-somethings another wrinkle unique to Utah, a baby boom echo long after the rest of the country's entered the worlds of work, housing and family.
But economists, employers and residents now say the very forces that made Utah roar in the types of jobs that grew, especially construction and manufacturing also pulled the state more firmly into the national and global economic web. And some of the distinctive traits that looked like strengths, like the low numbers of retirees, now seem like chinks in the armor. Retirees, who have flocked to places like Montana and Idaho, are likely to have interest and investment income to spend no matter what happens, while wage earners, who dominate Utah's economy, could suffer in a downturn.
But Utah's unexpectedly sharp knock is a reminder of how global and local are intertwined and how delicate the balance can be.
"We're no longer insulated," said Pamela S. Perlich, a senior research economist at the University of Utah. "Utah still has a special story, but it got blurred by the engine of economic growth."
Even as the rest of the nation's economy began stumbling last year, Utah's immunity seemed secure. The global shocks to housing, credit and the stock market would remain distant echoes, many economists said. The dismal picture of boarded-up, foreclosed houses that can be seen in places like Las Vegas or Riverside, Calif., would not happen here, business leaders said with a touch of smugness, because Utah, marching to its own fiscally prudent drummer, had not overbuilt.
But in December, the number of single-family housing permits issued here fell 32 percent, the steepest one-month decline since 1980, and existing home sales plummeted, off nearly 34 percent in the fourth quarter of last year the sixth-worst record in the nation, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Job growth projections for 2008 were recently cut by a third, in the state's own analysis, to 2 percent from 3 percent or more only a month ago. New housing starts are expected to fall nearly 60 percent in Utah in 2008, a worse hit than Nevada or Arizona, which have become national symbols of the housing mess, according a recent national forecast by Moody's Economy.com.
Utah does not have the same magnitude of problems that other states are facing, and if history is a measure it will weather a recession better than many other regions. Only twice since the early 1960s, even as the nation endured numerous recessions, has Utah had fewer jobs at year's end than it did the year before.
People like Dawn Updyke and Rick Draper, who helped bring Utah to its new place, are feeling the effects.
Updyke relocated from Ohio last year when her employer, the packing materials company Third Dimension, opened its first Western outpost in the southern Salt Lake City suburbs. Draper was local, with roots deep in Utah pioneer history, and took a job as Third Dimensions' plant coordinator. She adjusted to Utah life as the production control manager; he adjusted to having bosses in the Midwest.
But after 11 months, the company is still at only 30 percent capacity. Finding and keeping employees was a problem in the beginning, Draper said. Now the bigger problem is demand. The company's biggest customer, the Ohio cabinet manufacturer KraftMaid Cabinetry, which broke ground for a big factory in the Salt Lake Valley in 2005, has struggled to gear up its production and is not buying as many polyfoam and fiberboard shipping boxes as projected.
"I don't foresee any large growth as of now," Draper said.
A spokeswoman for KraftMaid, Kim Craig, declined to comment on the company's projected hiring or production. She said in an e-mail message that the Utah plant, which serves the Western states and Canada, could employ up to 1,300 people "when manufacturing reaches full capacity."
Historically, the West has always moved to a different beat. Manufacturing was never much of a factor to consider, but commodity prices for things like copper and gold were. Government spending on the military a huge force through the Cold War as cloistered desert bases and depots expanded was usually a better economic indicator than the Dow Jones Industrials.
But the Rocky Mountain region has evolved since the last national recession in the early 2000s. Real estate and construction has increasingly supplanted mining and military. Recreation, with foreign visitors increasingly important, dwarfs ranching.
And the wave of affluent retirees, except for Utah's southwest corner in St. George, has mostly gone elsewhere, remaking towns like Grand Junction, Colo., and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Compared with the economies of its five immediate neighbors Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona Utah's is least dependent on, or in a downturn least helped by, the "nonwage" income that retirees have to spend from annuities and investments, according to Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group in Bozeman, Mont.
And in what is perhaps the cruelest paradox of all, Utah spends less on health care than its neighbors, according to Headwaters, with healthy habits, fewer old people and abstention from alcohol and tobacco by practicing Mormons the biggest factors. Health care spending is usually one of the most stable sectors of all in a downturn.
Economists say the nation's economic turmoil is hitting differently around the country depending on the local mix of weaknesses and strengths.
Parts of the Midwest connected to the auto industry are getting smacked by continued troubles in Detroit, but are expected to be hurt least in the decline of new housing starts in 2008, according to Moody's Economy.com.
The Rocky Mountain West, partly led downward by Utah, is expected to have the biggest percentage decline in construction jobs and housing starts this year, while the Southeast is likely to suffer least in total job growth. The Northeastern states, the company's 2008 projections say, will take the biggest hit in total value of goods produced, called gross state product.
But some important old differences remain in Utah, too. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will spend more than $1.5 billion in Salt Lake City over the next few years on a complete renovation of several downtown blocks. That is going to happen no matter what, said Mark Knold, the senior economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "The Mormon Church is recession-proof," he said.
And so, it would seem, is Ari Bishop. Bishop, a 27-year-old sales executive, has ridden the wave of economic life. He went into real estate when Salt Lake City was exploding with growth. He bought and sold a house and had two children with his wife, Bene.
Now he sells training packages to people learning to work a new growth sector: foreclosures and bank-owned properties. It was boom times here before, Bishop said, and now boom times again, sort of.
"It's a little different angle," he said. "But we're just going with the market."