Originally submitted to Utah Business.
The growth challenges along the Wasatch Front are well known. What receives less attention is the extraordinary growth pressures being felt in Utah’s Wasatch Back, an area defined as the east side of the Wasatch Range encompassing Morgan, Summit and Wasatch County. We need leadership and investment to guide this growth if we are to preserve the things we hold dear.
Local leaders understand the opportunities and challenges. That’s why Summit and Wasatch Counties hosted a joint Wasatch Back Economic Summit last month where they discussed issues, shared ideas and learned from one another. They know the Wasatch Back will continue to feel extraordinary growth pressures for the foreseeable future. That’s why there is a clarion call for wise investment and bold leadership.
Consider these stats:
The Wasatch Back resides in the center of the fastest growing region in the country (Mountain West), in the fastest growing state in the country (Utah), and in the rapidly growing urban part of the state. This is true for both population and jobs; the Wasatch Back is at ground zero for economic and demographic growth.
Job growth in Utah from March 2017 to March 2018 is two times that of the nation. That’s impressive. Job growth in Wasatch and Morgan Counties, however, is five times that of the nation. That’s even more impressive…and daunting.
A similar trend holds in population growth. In 2017, Wasatch County increased by 4.1 percent, compared with 1.9 percent for Utah and 0.9 percent for the nation.
Much of the growth is coming from in migration as people choose to live in the beautiful and livable Wasatch Back. Net migration in 2017 registered an estimated 443 in Summit County, 886 in Wasatch County, and 107 in Morgan County. Compound this migration, combined with natural increase, over a decade and you gain increased understanding about the transportation, water and education needs in these counties.
Then consider the investment occurring at the Salt Lake City International Airport, Point of the Mountain, and potentially an inland port, and you start to see why the beautiful Wasatch Back with its extraordinary life quality and accessibility to jobs creates a super-sized growth challenge.
Early in my career I studied under Thayne Robson, one of the most brilliant economic minds this state has ever known. He once gave a speech to the American Institute of Architects where he opined about Utah’s growth challenges. Even though this was over four decades ago his words carry profound meaning today. He said the following:
“There are a lot of people who would simply like to let the future happen to us, saying there is some great invisible hand somewhere guiding the destiny of mankind… I’m convinced that in much of our economic market system, in much of what we do in building institutions and causing them to interact, that invisible hand is all thumbs, and we really have got to do something to improve the quality of that invisible hand or we’ll keep repeating the same dumb mistakes.”
What was he talking about? He was reminding Utah leaders that it’s our responsibility to worry about the future. The market will make many, if not most, decisions, but it shouldn’t make them all. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We have to consider opportunities and challenges, make explicit our preferences, and then build the kind of future we want to have.
What does that mean in Utah’s Wasatch Back? I’d suggest three major things. First, we have to invest in physical capital – transportation and water infrastructure, affordable housing, and other components of the built environment. If I can borrow from Envision Utah’s mantra: How we grow matters.
Second, we have to invest in human capital – high quality pre-kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, career and technical education, and universities. We need talent, so we can have an economy with the resources to invest in quality.
Finally, we have to make life quality a priority, including investment in critical land conservation, parks and trails, affordable housing and environmental quality.
Many will ask, how do you do this? How do you make sure growth doesn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg? I know of no other answer than that it takes leadership. The Wasatch Back needs a jointly shared vision that people can rally behind and make happen. We absolutely have the capacity to create the future we want, but we need public leaders at every level – federal, state and local – to make it happen. The private sector also doesn’t get a pass. To be successful, growth planning must be a public-private endeavor.
I’m telling residents of the Wasatch Back to buckle up! Economic and demographic growth is pushing the throttle. We can’t shy away and do nothing. We need to invent the future we want before it’s too late.