Salt Lake City is one of the biggest winners of the past decade
September 18, 2021
Salt Lake City
“IT IS PROTECTED behind its wall mountains, isolated from the stormy physical and intellectual weather of both coasts, ”Wallace Stegner wrote of Salt Lake City. The writer combined his adopted country, in which he spent much of the 1920s and 30s, with an “isolationism” and “provincialism” offered by his Mormon heritage and his cozy location between the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake. These functions are retained; but marvel at the city’s bustling downtown today from a perch in the nearby foothills and Salt Lake looks anything but provincial. There are few places in America that can shout louder than the City of Saints about their achievements over the past decade.
Listen to this story
Your browser does not support the
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
Utah’s population grew faster than any other state between 2010 and 2020. Salt Lake City has the lowest unemployment rate of any major city at 2.8%, compared to a national rate of 5.2%. The state has recovered so well from the downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the Wasatch Front, an urban corridor that includes Salt Lake and Provo, home of Brigham Young University. According to Juliette Tennert, an economist at the University of Utah, the four counties on the Wasatch Front account for at least 80% of Utah’s economic activity.
Salt Lake’s success in many ways reflects what is happening in other mountain cities to the west, such as Boise, Idaho and Denver, Colorado. What makes Utah so special? First of all, it has the most diverse economy of any state, according to the Hachman Index, which measures each state’s industry mix against that of the nation. In fact, Utah has been a majority in the top two for the past two decades, says Ms. Tennert. The Wasatch Front has a thriving technology sector – dubbed “Silicon Slopes” – several research universities and an international airport.
Utah’s ability to attract new businesses is aided by its Republican zeal for low corporate taxes and little regulation. But putting Salt Lake City on the map also required myth-breaking. Former governor Gary Herbert points to 2002, when Salt Lake hosted the Winter Olympics, as a pivotal moment. “That was our coming out party,” he says. People realized that “we are not the Wild West here in Utah”.
Researchers also cite Utah’s relative homogeneity as the reason for its success. It can be easier for people to get along when they come from a religious and cultural background. But the state is changing rapidly. Although approximately 61% of Utah’s population is Mormon, that number is steadily shrinking. About 48% of Salt Lake County’s residents identify as Mormons; the city itself – which is more diverse – probably has even less. Utah is the youngest state in the country, but its fertility rate is falling faster than the national average, says Emily Harris, a demographer. Acquiring and retaining new Utahns is becoming more and more important as the birth rate declines.
Three things threaten Salt Lake City’s ability to attract and retain new residents. The first is environmental problems. Americans may move to Salt Lake for its proximity to hiking trails and posh ski resorts, but the Wasatch Front is plagued by pollution. Wildfire smoke, heavy traffic and dust from the drying lake bed pollute the air. Utah also anticipates shrinking reservoirs due to the mega-drought that has dehydrated much of the west.
Second, Salt Lake City is becoming unaffordable for many longtime residents. According to Zillow, an online listing platform, house prices have increased nearly 25% since August 2020. (Across the country, property values rose an average of nearly 18%.) Erin Mendenhall, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake, cites the high cost of housing as evidence that rapid growth does not benefit everyone.
Third, Utah is consistently one of the worst states in the country for gender equality. An annual index from WalletHub, a consumer website, found that the gender pay gap in Utah was larger than most other states. Women in Utah are also less likely to graduate from college or be elected to political office. That Utah is such a latecomer is likely due to the continued influence of the Mormon Church and the tendency of believers to marry young and have large families. But the future looks better: As the state diversifies and looks more like America, women should benefit.
Utahs aren’t surprised their state is booming. “Salt Lakers generally love to fly under the radar,” says Ms. Mendenhall. “Part of our city’s personality is knowing we are the best kept secret.” That may be historically true, but the ever-growing Wasatch front suggests the secret is out. ■
This article appeared in the USA section of the print version under the heading “Not Your Father’s Utah”.