Salt Lake City: Is this still the place?

  -This is the place," Brigham Young proclaimed when he first saw the Salt Lake Valley. To the Mormon leader it seemed a divinely inspired refuge for his persecuted Latter-day Saints.


These days, Salt Lake City advertises itself with the Olympic slogan, "The world is welcome here." Winning a bid to host the Olympics in 2002 is Salt Lake City's mission for the new millennium. The city boasts that it's outpacing Denver both as a regional hub for services such as hospitals and banking and as a ski destination. Four major ski areas lie within a half-hour drive from downtown.


"Believe it or not, Salt Lake City has a lot more in common with Las Vegas than with Denver," says Ted Wilson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and author of Utah's Wasatch Front. "Utah has a very promotive culture. The industry is different. We sell snow; They sell gambling. But the resident population of Las Vegas is quite similar to Salt Lake. If you strip away the tourists from Las Vegas, it is a pretty staid, stable, conservative community."


Throughout the 1980s, Utah's high birth rate and stagnant economy pushed thousands of people out of the state each year. But during the 1990s, people started moving in at the rate of about 22,000 each year. While mining, military, aerospace and manufacturing have been in a slow but steady decline, Utah has touted its low wages and central Western location in order to attract computer software makers. The results have been mixed, but recreation and tourism have boomed.


Now, some residents worry the world is coming too quickly to their kingdom. "We still feel a lot of what Brigham Young was looking for when he said this was the place," says writer Brooke Williams, who is a direct descendent of the Mormon pioneer. "We feel safe in this big valley. The more people find out, the shorter it will be a great place." Along the Wasatch Front, where more than 80 percent of Utah's 1.9 million residents live, the Williams family business - laying pipeline and plumbing - has prospered. Still, Brooke Williams has second thoughts about growth.


"I call it cultural pollution," he says. "I think people are entitled to close the door behind them. What's wrong with wanting to keep a place you love from changing?"


* J.C.