Originally published in the Deseret News.
The Utah economy continues to impress. Utah job growth registers an impressive 3.5 percent, the fastest job growth in the country and nearly twice the national average of 1.6 percent. Utah’s job growth, combined with low unemployment, rising wages and net in-migration, makes for the hottest economy in the nation right now.
I’m always tracking the story behind the story and, of course, there are many behind-the-scene narratives about the Utah economy.
One is the silent recession in rural Utah, as several counties have contracted since 2007.
Another is the rapid population growth in Utah’s urban “ring counties” like Wasatch, Morgan and Tooele. Wasatch County is Utah’s fastest-growing county. Morgan and Tooele are not far behind.
Another story emanates from Utah County, the state’s current economic powerhouse. Job growth in Utah County over the past year (May 2017 to May 2018) increased by 6.2 percent, more than twice the rate of Salt Lake County, which tallied 3.0 percent.
These stories remain, but an emerging story is the economic potential of northern Utah. I think it’s time for the northern Utah economy to come alive.
My optimism for the northern Utah economy stems from three assets — land, livability and leadership.
Northern Utah’s land supply offers an affordable alternative to development in Salt Lake County, which is running out of developable land. By some estimates, there are only about 30,000 acres of buildable land supply left in Salt Lake County. New development must push upwards and outwards. Utah County will get much of the outward growth, but northern Utah should get its share.
Northern Utah also offers high-quality living with great access to the outdoors, less congestion and attractive urban amenities. Educational institutions like Utah State University, Weber State University and the tech colleges in Ogden/Weber and Davis offer much to the local community. Three great ski resorts, national forests and the lovely Cache and Ogden valleys offer outstanding recreational options. Northern Utah also offers convenient access to the Salt Lake City International Airport and the Ogden-Hinckley Airport.
Finally, I’m impressed with the caliber of public leadership in northern Utah, particularly in the Utah Legislature. Sen. Stuart Adams and Sen. Jerry Stevenson of Layton and Sen. Pete Knudson of Brigham City serve on the Senate Republican leadership team and are all outstanding public servants. In the Utah House, Rep. Brad Wilson of Kaysville sits on the Republican leadership team and is arguably the Legislature’s most innovative and long-range thinker.
To rise to the next level, however, two things must happen in the northern Utah economy.
First, the region must find an economic identity. Opportunities in northern Utah need definition and lift. Salt Lake City’s financial services sector has become the “Wall Street of the West.” Southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County are ground zero for “Silicon Slopes.” Utah’s tourism economy has the “Mighty Five” and the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Northern Utah needs its own regional brand.
Second, the northern Utah economy needs to start performing at its economic weight. In the most recent employment report, Box Elder County grew at 1.6 percent, compared with the state average of 3.5 percent. Davis County, which has never been an employment center, tallied 1.8 percent job growth for the same period. Both Weber and Cache counties, while strong, increased below the state average. It’s time to set and reach a higher economic bar in these counties. It will take leadership and vision to get there.
I’m excited about what the future holds for northern Utah. The Hill Air Force Base F-35 fighter jet success story speaks to the strength of the workforce. The success of Farmington Station and Ogden’s Historic 25th Street in Ogden show northern Utah can be attractive, high-energy and even cool. Large employers like Autoliv, Fresenius USA Manufacturing, Amer Sports and Conagra Foods show that major industries can thrive there.
I’m confident that with leadership and vision, northern Utah’s best economic days are still to come.