The numbers are hard to ignore. A mountain of economic and demographic data as high as Mount Timpanogos shows Utah County on the rise. Economic, demographic and political power are shifting south, and Utah’s second largest county is the epicenter of growth and change in the Beehive State. The only question is are we ready?
The state’s most recent employment report shows Utah County's economy growing at more than twice the state average and nearly three times the national average. This isn’t a surprise given the extraordinary tech-sector job growth currently occurring along the Silicon Slopes corridor and the rapid population growth in northern Utah County and west of Utah Lake.
Analysts at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute calculate that nearly 40 percent of Utah’s job growth since 2010 has occurred in the 25-mile stretch from Midvale to Pleasant Grove. That’s approximately 75,000 jobs and an annual growth rate exceeding 8 percent. By comparison, the state job growth rate, which is among the fastest in the nation, has been hovering around 3 percent for the past five years.
Much of the explanation for this growth can be found in the real estate market. Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties are running out of land. Salt Lake County, for example, is down to an estimated 30,000 remaining acres of buildable land supply, most of it near Herriman and west of the Salt Lake City International Airport where the new prison will be built.
In contrast, planners at Envision Utah estimate Utah County has approximately 230,000 acres of vacant land available for development. Much of this land lies in the northern part of the county and west of Utah Lake. The greater Salt Lake metro area will expand onto these lands as people seek greater affordability. A single, large metropolitan area the size of the current population of Seattle will form over the planning horizon.
Looking to the future, the story becomes even more interesting. Demographers project Utah County will be the second fastest growing county in the state (next to Washington County, where St. George is located) over the next 50 years. If the projections hold, 1 million new residents will call Utah County home in 2065. The county’s size will rival that of Salt Lake County.
I predict several things will happen. First, Utah County’s culture will change and become much more like its northern neighbor, Salt Lake County. Utah County will become more urban, more multi-cultural and more diverse in every sense of the word. To Utah County residents, “It won’t be your grandfather’s Buick anymore.”
Second, as an urban growth magnet, the county will face intensifying urban challenges — transportation congestion, air pollution, housing affordability, social services, public safety and the loss of prime agricultural lands.
Finally, these challenges will motivate lively and essential conversations about regional collaboration, land conservation, tax policy and a host of other public policies. Investment will be the watchword of the day as the county will need additional water, road, transit and human capital infrastructure. These investments will be essential and expensive. Identifying the right investments and finding the right way to pay for them will be the greatest test of leadership.
Utah County leaders, present and future, have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the county’s future success. They can proactively plan and prepare for their children and grandchildren’s future, or they can sit back and react to the inevitable growth and change.
As my colleague and the state’s leading demographer Pam Perlich says, “These changes are ongoing, irreversible, cumulative, and consequential.” The rise of Utah County is an extraordinary opportunity to preserve what residents hold dear and invent an exciting and prosperous future. We get one chance to get it right.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.