Originally published in the Deseret News.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt tells a story of being stuck in traffic on I-15 and feeling frustrated. He said to himself, “I thought we fixed this!” Upon further reflection he remembered the I-15 reconstruction during his administration was projected to forestall congestion for about 15 years. Then a news flash hit him … it’s been more than 15 years!
Leavitt’s experience mirrors that of others. Starting about three or so years ago, Utah’s growth challenges began to pile up like a bunch of cans kicked down the road. Rush hour started earlier and extended later. Traffic between Salt Lake and Utah counties equalized. Powder days in the Wasatch Canyons became more of a hassle than a thrill. Utah’s mighty national parks became mighty jam-packed. Empty fields disappeared. People began to question tax incentives for companies that intensified growth. Utah leaders started talking about “growth by choice” or “good growth,” rather than growth alone.
The Utah Legislature recently convened a daylong policy summit to consider critical long-term issues impacting the state, like transportation, housing and water. At the beginning of the summit I presented five Utah growth axioms that illuminate the growth challenges facing Utah and provide helpful context for decision-making.
Axiom No. 1 — Growth is Utah’s constant companion. Utah’s population increases every year without exception. Since 1990 the state has averaged 52,000 new residents each year (the approximate size of Logan City). We face a growth double-bind. Growth occurs because Utah offers opportunity and life quality. What makes Utah attractive to residents also makes it attractive to others. As long as Utah maintains its appeal, the state will face growth challenges.
Axiom No. 2 — Net in-migration is Utah’s new norm. Since 1990, Utah has experienced net in-migration in 26 of 28 years. This is a change from the Utah of the 1950s and 1960s when a boom and bust economy created cycles of net in- and out-migration. The 1970s were an anomaly and brought in a lot of new migrants, only to be followed in the 1980s by seven consecutive years of net out-migration. This cycle of boom and bust has changed. For the past three decades, Utah has been a decidedly net in-migration state.
Axiom No. 3 — Utah’s population is changing … fast. We are aging, urbanizing, diversifying and shifting south. The number of Utahns 65 and older is projected to increase from 1 in 10 today to 1 in 5 50 years from now. According to the Census Bureau, 91% of Utahns live in an urban setting. The percent of Hispanic or Latino has grown from 5% in 1990 to 14% today. And, Utah’s mean population center — the point where an imaginary, weightless, rigid and flat surface would balance if every person weighed the same — has moved from Dimple Dell Park in Sandy to the Harvest Hills area of Saratoga Springs in Utah County.
Axiom No. 4 — Utah’s economic and demographic growth is unevenly distributed. Last year, while the rest of the state grew, the population in two Utah counties contracted (Garfield and Emery). Utah also faces a “silent recession,” as four Utah counties (Beaver, Carbon, Emery, and Piute) have fewer jobs today than in July 2009 during the Great Recession.
Axiom No. 5 — Utah tracks the nation … with a twist. Utah is not an island. Our economic peaks and valleys track the nation’s with few exceptions. Like the nation, trade disputes, oil prices, labor shortages and generational shifts impact the Utah economy. The twist comes because Utah typically performs better than the nation and Utah’s population is younger.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, who specializes in long vision thinking, asked a profound question at the legislative policy summit. Speaking to legislators he said, “If we don’t think about Utah’s long-term future … who will?” Every generation of leaders must do their part to plant seeds for the next generation. Growth requires planning and investment. We won’t prosper if we don’t make long-term thinking a priority.