How the Mormon GOP runs Utah with a collectivist touch
by Jonathan Thompson
"Our object is to labor for the benefit of the whole ..."
--Brigham Young, 1873
A throng of cars floats down Interstate 15 on an end-of-summer morning, the rising sun wreathed in the orange gauze of distant wildfire smoke. In Lehi, a suburb sandwiched between Salt Lake City and Provo, a massive steel-and-glass shape juts out from the hillside over the interstate, sporting a huge banner that reads "Adobe." It's the 280,000-square-foot first phase of the software giant's new campus, which will house more than 1,000 employees, adding to the 600 already in Utah. Behind the building, rows of new houses are marching up the hillside, watched over by the gleaming white steeples of Mormon meeting houses. A flock of paragliders hangs in the hazy air above the subdivision.
It's a perfect snapshot of Utah's economy, which by nearly all measures is doing quite well. The state has more manufacturing than its neighbors, greater economic diversity, and in August the unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, tied with Wyoming for lowest in the West (Nevada was highest with 12.1). Big businesses like Adobe and Goldman Sachs are expanding their presence here. A lower percentage of people live in poverty in Utah than in most of the nation, and Utah consistently has the best Gini Index score, meaning the wealth is more evenly distributed. In the past year alone, at least a half-dozen media outlets have ranked Utah among the top five places to live or do business, and the Brookings Institution's Metro Monitor consistently gives Ogden, Salt Lake City and Provo top scores in recovery from the recession.
This success has observers asking: What's Utah's secret sauce? Republican Gov. Gary Herbert says that the main ingredient is a laissez-faire, no-government-interference, free-market approach. "This is no surprise to Utah, again confirming that reasonable regulation, low taxes and an unparalleled workforce are the best components to promote economic growth," Herbert told The Salt Lake Tribune in August, after CNBC chose his state as number two for business in the nation. "We achieve this growth by creating the best conditions for the free market to do what it does best."
In other words, Utah -- one of the politically reddest states -- provides an ideal atmosphere for the "We Built It" slogan that the Republican Party has adopted this campaign season. Utah's relatively low corporate tax rate (5 percent) and the Herbert administration's recent effort to streamline regulations have also attracted businesses fleeing states with higher taxes and more onerous rules.
But look a little more closely at Lehi, and a more complex recipe emerges. Adobe may, indeed, have been lured here by low taxes, but $40 million in incentives from the state government, plus millions more in local incentives, also helped. So did the state-funded effort to turn its universities into high-tech incubators of sorts and the taxpayer-funded commuter rail that will be extended to near the company's campus later this year. Adobe employees will overlook the whirling industrial sculpture of state-incentivized wind turbines, along with an even bigger campus of sorts across the valley, a 1 million-square-foot, $2 billion National Security Agency "spy center" funded by federal taxpayers.
We Built It? Sure, as long as the "We" includes a healthy dose of all levels of government involvement, and impressive influence from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, building on a long history of strong centralized planning and rebellion against unfettered capitalism and the Western frontier individualist ethos. "To the very desirable assets of the Western landscape, they've added good policy," says Mark Muro, co-director of the Brookings Mountain West think tank. "It's not a big government, but they're doing smart things. It's a planning-oriented, smart, lean government."
To see this dynamic at work on a smaller, hyped-up scale, follow I-15 past the Adobe campus, through the edge of Salt Lake City and past the Deseret Industries grain elevators at the LDS Welfare Square. Stop in Ogden, a city of about 80,000 nestled against the mountains, where another Republican and self-proclaimed free marketeer, Matt Godfrey, used his power as mayor to push, pull and cajole a transformation in his city, from rundown railroad burg to, in his words, a "cool, hip funky town being reborn as an outdoor mecca."
Godfrey, who has the slight build of a long-distance runner -- he was an all-American track star in college -- and thinning hair that he keeps tightly shorn, wears a friendly grin when I meet him in Ogden's historic Ben Lomond hotel on a hot September day. He doesn't remotely resemble the images evoked by the "Boss Godfrey" nickname pinned on him by his critics. He bounds into the hotel lobby wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and notices a hotel guest who's heading towards the front door with a bicycle and gear in tow. "Awesome!" says Godfrey, in a soft, high-pitched voice. "That's what I love to see, mountain bikes in hotel lobbies."
It's fair to say that that particular mountain bike, pushed by a competitor in the XTerra national championship mountain triathlon and trail-running event taking place in Ogden that weekend, was there thanks to Godfrey. From the moment he took office in 2000 until he left last January after deciding not to run for a fourth term, Godfrey worked vigorously -- some would say autocratically -- to turn downtown Ogden into a place where mountain bikers and runners and skiers would feel at home.
Different industries and government programs shaped Ogden from the time it first boomed back in 1869. Back then, Ogden was one of the two nearest cities to where the Union and Central Pacific branches of the Transcontinental Railroad met. The other was Corinne, a non-Mormon town with a bunch of saloons. Though Latter-day Saints President Brigham Young fretted about the evil outside influences a railroad might bring, he was also pragmatic, and wanted a Mormon community to reap the benefits, too. So he got his Ogden followers to give up pieces of their land, which he then offered to the railroad companies on the condition that they build their major terminal and hub in Ogden. It worked. Corinne, the loser, virtually vanished. Ogden thrived.
Its status as a railroad hub drew manufacturers, distributors, icehouses, banks and stockyards. In 1926, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Magazine called Ogden "one of the leading industrial centers of the great Intermountain West." That legacy can be seen in the downtown area's solid, sometimes grand architecture. The population of Ogden grew from about 1,500 in 1860 to 10 times that in 1890, and growth continued at a rapid clip for decades.
Beginning in the 1950s, air travel and the interstate highway system replaced the rails. With the development of mechanically refrigerated railroad cars and trucks, Ogden's niche as an ice manufacturer and layover stop for perishable goods melted, and the giant ice factory fell idle in 1972. The American Can Company shut down seven years later. Ogden's population stalled out at around 70,000 in 1960, and stayed there for the next four decades. The core of the city was hollowed out, the population aged, and by the 1990s, as sprawl filled up the space between the mountains and the Great Salt Lake, Ogden was in danger of degenerating into a beat-up, crime-ridden suburb of Salt Lake. The Ogden River, which skirts downtown, was so nasty after decades of dumping and neglect that in 2007, celebrity environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. called it a "putrid waste conveyance."
It was this city that Godfrey, at the tender age of 29, hoped to lead. He had grown up in Ogden, attended college here at Weber State University, and watched the decline. He had a bit of business experience, but none in politics, though he had already been a bishop in the Mormon Church, an asset in the Utah political arena.
"We were struggling," says Godfrey. "No one stepped in and said: 'We have to transition our economy.' So for 40 years we just kept being the old railroad town. When I ran for mayor, people would say, 'I just want to see the railroad come back.' It was unbelievable."
Godfrey ran on being "aggressive about putting forth a new vision of the community." Within six months of winning office, he and his colleagues firmed up the vision: Ogden would draw on its ready access to skiing, biking, climbing and other outdoor activities and become a "high adventure recreation" mecca. It soon became clear that this vision required a hands-on approach.
"I'm a free-market guy. My philosophy is that the market should drive things," says Godfrey. Yet, rather than lowering taxes, easing regulations or getting government out of the way of market forces, Godfrey used the tools at the city's disposal to pursue his vision. "It's only when the market is broken that the government should get involved. Trying to correct it so that it can thrive on its own again, and that's what we tried to do."
Godfrey, who now works in the private sector as an economic development consultant, begins a before-and-after tour of the downtown just outside the hotel. "That place was a mess," he says, pointing across the street at the park next to City Hall. Today, its gardens are meticulously manicured, the grass brilliant green and freshly trimmed -- a nice place to sit and eat lunch from one of the nearby taco vendors. But back then it was "filled up with whatever the next step up from homeless is," says Godfrey, and its hedged-in playground was littered with syringes. The city government stepped in and, with the help of grants, built an amphitheater and cleaned the place up. It was one of Godfrey's first big initiatives.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the tour is less the transformations that took place, though they are remarkable, than the extent to which the city government pushed them through, whether by increasing regulation, getting greater funding for the cops, spending federal stimulus money, handing out incentives, tax-increment financing, arm-twisting, or simply buying property and developing it itself. Over the past 12 years, the city embarked on its own unique and massive stimulus program.
There's the paved bike path that now winds its way through lush trees alongside the once "putrid" Ogden River and its four kayak parks. This $6 million restoration project, which required removing some 13,000 tons of concrete and thousands of tires from the waterway, was completed this year. A few blocks from the river, the big, brick former American Can Company building bustles as the headquarters of a charter school and Amer Sports' North American headquarters. The interior is airy and light, corporate and modern with giant exposed old beams giving it a rustic edge, a remodel that was incentivized by the city. On historic 25th Street, a once-vacant lot now holds a somewhat posh restaurant, condos and boutiques, another of the city's many public-private partnerships.
Realizing that upscale businesses wouldn't do well without a nearby upscale clientele, the city bought most of the houses -- grand old Victorians divided into apartments that were slowly deteriorating -- on a block of Jefferson Avenue east of downtown. The city then sold them at a low price and subsidized their restoration.
When Godfrey was first elected, it looked like the Ogden City Mall, in the heart of downtown, would either sit empty or become a call center. The city government bought the mall for $6 million, then spent tens of millions more for its demolition, building in its stead the Salomon Center, the anchor of what is now The Junction -- a 48-acre mixed-use development that is surely the flagship of Godfrey's legacy. Though designed to meld with the historic streetscape, The Junction retains a mall-like feel, with piped-in music drowned out by the roar emanating from the Salomon Center's indoor skydiving fan.
On the north end of The Junction, Deseret Books -- owned by the Mormon Church -- occupies a large retail space. The main window display, featuring a book of the teachings of Joseph Smith, faces a huge construction zone, with a crane towering overhead and workers moving about busily on a skeletal structure. "That's the temple," says Godfrey, stopping the SUV for a moment and looking up reverently. "It's going to be awesome."
In 1999, before Godfrey was elected, the church began construction of the 220-apartment complex, Colonial Court, on church-owned land just west of the temple, marking the first major development in downtown in years. After he was elected, Godfrey met with church officials and urged them to keep building to help bolster the city's own efforts. Now they're doing just that: Ogden's temple, one of 16 in the state and 139 worldwide, is getting a major makeover of its old 1970s space-age sheen. On the surrounding land, the church's real estate arm is also doing a major mixed-use development for an estimated $250 million.
The LDS role in the economy and land-use planning of Utah is often downplayed, even by church officials. They insist, for example, that their development efforts are solely to insulate their temples from urban blight. But the significance of their role can't be denied. The state was originally colonized by Mormons, after all, and today more than 60 percent of Utahns are Mormons, according to church counts. A much greater percentage of Utah politicians belong to the church, so LDS culture inevitably seeps into local and state decision-making.
Then there's the church's corporate presence: It owns Utah's second-biggest newspaper, a book publisher, dozens of radio stations, financial companies, a hotel and a handful of restaurants, not to mention a great deal of land. An HCN analysis of property records found that two of the church's real estate subsidiaries, Property Reserve Inc. and Suburban Land Reserves, together own more than 200 parcels in Salt Lake County alone, valued at more than $340 million. Perhaps more surprising are their out-of-state real estate holdings, which include 150 parcels in Maricopa County, Ariz., home of Phoenix, and almost 2,300 acres in neighboring Pinal County, where the church bought an unbuilt subdivision in 2008 for a whopping $72 million. A Reuters story earlier this year estimated the church's net worth at about $40 billion.
"The Church," wrote Rod Decker, now a reporter for a Utah television station, in Sunstone magazine in 1992, "neither exercises nor seeks control of government, yet it remains not only the most powerful single interest in Utah politics, but the most powerful single interest in the politics of any American state."
Concrete symbols of its influence can be seen in Ogden and, on a much grander scale, in the $2 billion redevelopment by the church of a major portion of downtown Salt Lake City. This spring, City Creek, one of the largest mixed-use developments in the nation, with eight high-rises, 90 retail stores and hundreds of condos, opened for business. Even before that, the church dominated the city's core, with Temple Square and various church-owned enterprises stretching out from there, including the imposing Albert Speer-esque LDS Conference Center. City Creek's development also kept the city's building industry afloat during the housing bust, employing at least 1,500 construction workers.
"(The church) did it during a recession and they didn't bat an eyelash," says Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "You could almost go so far as to call them a recession-proof industry." The church also provides a fairly hefty safety net through its welfare program, Deseret Industries -- a network of thrift stores that puts unemployed or disabled people to work -- and major support of the Utah Food Bank; it donated more than $2.5 million to a 2009 capital fundraising campaign. The church won't share its employment figures and the state doesn't track them, so its precise effect on the local economy will always remain a mystery.
The church's cultural influence also spreads far and wide. Most obvious are the state's liquor laws, stemming from the church's prohibition on alcohol. Some of the more arcane ones -- Happy Hour is illegal in Utah -- may have a negative drag on the economy by discouraging tourism. But if you want to buy beer for your river trip in Utah, you need to go to the state-owned liquor store, a bit of socialism in action. In 2011, such sales generated $62 million in profit for the state's General Fund, according to the Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, in addition to millions more in sales and school taxes.
Culture also plays a role in Utah's response to the housing boom and bust, which mirrored the Arizona and Nevada housing markets but to a lesser extreme. "Utah is different than the rest of the nation," says Knold. "We're even different than our neighbors, and I would sink that into the Mormon community. ... What is different is high birth rates. The LDS community promotes big families." Arizona and Nevada, it's now clear, overbuilt housing during the boom, and now that in-migration has slowed and even reversed, there's simply not enough bodies to fill them. Utah grows its population from within, so while overpricing was a problem here, overbuilding was not, leading to a faster housing recovery.
Utah's high birth rate also makes it the youngest state in the nation, with a big, youthful labor force from which the Adobes and Amer Sports can choose new employees. "I know it's not politically correct to say this," says former Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican, "but Utah's workers show up in the morning, they are not drunk and they speak foreign languages (largely thanks to the Mormon Church's international outreach) and English."
But these youngsters also skew employment figures because if they get laid off or can't find work, they find it easier than middle-aged folks to live with mom or go back to school. As a result, they're not looking for jobs or collecting unemployment, meaning they're not counted in the state's unemployment rate, which remains much lower than the national average.
"There's a cohesive culture out of the LDS that is clearly an element that has tended to dampen conflict -- has sought to find consensus and communitarian values," says Brookings Mountain West's Muro. That has been an important key in getting land-use plans, mass transit and other smart-growth, progressive initiatives done in a state with an often libertarian ideology, says Brenda Case Scheer, dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah.
After all, using central planning to accomplish a vision is hardly new in Utah. (See related story, facing page.) When Brigham Young and his followers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they wanted to make it a home, not just a place to raise cattle or dig for gold. This would take slow, deliberate planning as opposed to the free-for-all land rush that consumed much of the rest of the West. They began with a cooperative effort to build an irrigation system that belonged to everyone, and then laid out the towns. "The towns and villages were not established inadvertently or by individual initiative ... they were a result of very definite plans," wrote Hamilton Gardner in Cooperation Among the Mormons in 1917. Throughout Young's reign and on into that of John Taylor, his successor, such central economic and land-use planning continued.
This history has helped Envision Utah, a non-governmental organization, accomplish a sort of regional land-use planning that has mostly avoided the bitter conflicts that such efforts tend to inspire in much of the West. Robert Grow, its founder and current president, bristled when I called Envision Utah "planning" -- he prefers "visioning." Yet what they came up with by gathering input from 20,000 residents certainly looks like a giant comprehensive plan that lays out a roadmap for how the state should grow, without imposing any regulatory teeth.
The relatively homogenous culture, dominated by Republicans and the Mormon Church, reduces polarization, writes Scheer in a soon-to-be-published Brookings paper called "The Utah Model." It helps the state find consensus, even on issues such as mass transit or land-use regulations that are traditionally anathema to conservatives. "While the western ethic of strong property rights values extends to Utah, competing values of community and cooperation permeate at the local level."
To be sure, this "consensus-building" isn't always as sunny as Scheer makes it sound. This summer, a controversy broke out in Provo over LDS Church plans to replace old classroom buildings at its Missionary Training Center with a nine-story high rise. The leader of the opposition was a practicing Mormon, but he and other opponents backed down, reports The Salt Lake Tribune, after Mormon leaders urged them to support the church in its plans. There was an echo of much earlier efforts to get Mormons to toe the church's line. Mormons who failed to patronize the church-sponsored cooperative enterprises back in the 1870s risked excommunication.
For the half-century after they first settled in Utah, the Mormons were pummeled by oppressive legislation from a U.S. Congress that not only disliked polygamy (a practice the church officially abandoned in the early 1900s), but also resented the religion's collectivist economic ways, which threatened the era's captains of industry. Utah's never really gotten over it. This year, the state Legislature, which is 77 percent Republican, showed its disdain by passing a bill trying to "take back" federally managed land. While the move is seen as largely symbolic, it still rankles those who know how dependent the state is on the federal government. "Excuse me," says Knold, the state economist, in reference to the take-back-the-land bill, "do you realize how big that is in our economy?"
Really big. Federal agencies employ some 36,000 people across the state, the most per capita in the West along with New Mexico and Montana, and those workers get higher wages, on average, than those in most every other industry in Utah. The state received a substantial chunk of American Recovery Act stimulus funds, and Utahns collectively get more revenue from the feds than they pay in taxes, as is the case with most Western states. Communities near the gateways of Utah's national parks would dry up and blow away without the 6 million visits per year to the parks, and having all that federal land -- i.e. open space -- near the urban Wasatch Front boosts "quality of life," that elusive but essential ingredient for a healthy economy.
In Ogden, the federal government provides a cornerstone for the city's downtown revitalization, and its economy as a whole. Since the 1950s, the Internal Revenue Service has had a regional headquarters in Ogden, with thousands of employees. But when Godfrey got into office, the IRS was preparing to move further out into suburbia.
Godfrey fought back. After asking nicely, then invoking administrative orders mandating that the IRS move to downtown historic buildings if feasible, Godfrey finally threatened to take the agency to court. "It got ugly," says Godfrey. Finally, the IRS agreed to become "urban pioneers" with a $20 million project that combined renovation of old structures with construction of new ones. The IRS brought more than 1,000 jobs into downtown Ogden. Today, it remains Ogden's biggest employer, with more than 6,000 workers during peak season, and the impact of the downtown offices (which continue to expand) dwarfs that of any of the city's other redevelopment initiatives.
Those aren't the only federal dollars here. The roar of military jets is common, thanks to Hill Air Force Base just south of Ogden and its more than 10,000 employees. The U.S. Forest Service's Intermountain Region office, based in Ogden, provides more than 200 jobs. Just this summer, the feds gave $1 million to support a mobile phone and tablet app development lab in downtown. And the Ogden River restoration project was bolstered by $1 million in stimulus funds, a fraction of the $100 million the county has received in American Recovery Act funds since 2009.
Federal dollars are also apparent in Utah's public transportation system. In Tea Party-dominated states, governors have refused to accept high-speed rail funding from the feds, and libertarian conspiracy theorists say multimodal transport is one of the land-use planning methods employed by Agenda 21 folks to turn sovereignty over to the United Nations. In a 2011 column, conservative pundit George Will wrote that progressives love trains because it furthers "their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."
But over the last decade or so, Utah has been able to wage a mass transit revolution with support from the public and a host of local leaders, including Godfrey. The expansion began prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Salt Lake built its TRAX light rail system using federal dollars brought in with the help of then-Sen. Bennett, who ultimately lost his office to the Tea Party revolution. The TRAX system has grown rapidly since, funded in large part by a sales tax increase for which Utahns voted, along with city, state and federal dollars. Then, in 2008, the $600 million FrontRunner line from Salt Lake City to Ogden was completed, with some 80 percent paid for by grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In an op-ed marveling at the strides Utah has made on the transit front, Janet Kavinoky, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that in her native Wyoming, "people drive; transit is for big city folks and liberals." However, "Folks in the Salt Lake City metro area think differently than the rural Westerners I remember from my childhood. ... They respond to demands of businesses that want their employees to have multiple ways to get to work, and want to locate in a place with a good quality of life."
Indeed, Utah's long-term transit plans would make the George Wills of the world blanch. They include more public transit, not only for the Wasatch Front, but even in places like St. George, in Utah's Dixie. In the nearer-term, the FrontRunner will soon be extended south to Provo, and the TRAX system will reach out to the Salt Lake City airport. Land-use planners, spurred by the Envision Utah process, are urging cities to develop regulations and zoning that would cluster growth around transit stops. (Interestingly, the approach seems to mirror that of Mitt Romney's when he was governor of Massachusetts. In 2005, he said: "By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.") It's an urbanist view, to be sure, and one that many conservatives would consider a volley in the so-called War on Suburbia, but it's also an echo from the Mormon Church's central-planning past.
"We have a vision of the next American economy, which we think is very different than the real estate-fueled consumption economy that crashed," says Muro, of Brookings. "It's one that's much more oriented to production of things, the export of things, it is driven by strong regional innovation systems and industry clusters, and because it exports, it isn't so determined solely by the U.S. business cycle. Utah epitomizes that."
Muro is especially impressed with the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative, created in 2006 by Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The program's goal is to enhance research and innovation at the state's universities, then pair that with businesses, making the universities into high-tech incubators of sorts. Another Huntsman initiative is using incentives to help attract "clusters" of industries of the sorts Muro mentions -- software, aerospace, the outdoor industry.
In the last year alone, the state government has given out more than $100 million in incentives to businesses relocating or expanding in Utah, including eBay, a Family Dollar distribution center in southwestern Utah, and Sephora and Hershey distribution centers. Over the past three years, the state incentivized IM Flash to the tune of $45 million; Goldman Sachs dramatically expanded its Salt Lake City presence with the help of a $47.3 million tax rebate; and Adobe and Morgan Stanley also drew from the state pot. More than $7 million in motion picture incentives were handed out last year, and the state also has strong rural development grants and renewable energy incentives.
Incentives fly in Utah, with support from some of the most conservative legislators, says Jeff Edwards, president of Economic Development Corporation Utah, a public-private partnership, because they aren't paid to the businesses up front. The state writes the check, usually in the form of a tax credit rebate, only after the business has settled in Utah and created a specific number of jobs with higher wages than the average for the area. The approach seems to be working. Utah has gained more than 24,000 jobs since August 2011, with the biggest gains in the manufacturing and "professional and business" sectors.
Ogden has used state incentives -- plus a generous offering of local cash and tax credits -- to help it attract its own branch of the state's outdoor industry gear cluster. Amer Sports, an international conglomerate that owns Salomon, Atomic, Wilson, Mavic and other big names, moved to Ogden in 2007 with about 110 employees. Amer received $2.5 million in state incentives, in addition to some $5 million in local tax credits and incentives, including naming rights to the city-owned Salomon Center. Quality Bicycle Parts, a huge wholesale distributor, received state incentives for locating in Ogden, and ENVE, which builds carbon-fiber bike parts, was offered $1.3 million to "inshore" more than 300 Chinese manufacturing jobs back to Ogden.
Mike Dowse, Amer's Americas general manager, says he was attracted by Ogden's proximity to outdoor amenities (such as federal land), the incentives and the direct flights to Paris from Salt Lake City's airport. There was also cheap housing for his employees, who have bought some 30 homes in the area (the median home price in Ogden is about half that in Portland, Ore.). Dowse was also drawn by the then-fledgling outdoor industry cluster in Ogden, which provides a larger labor pool to draw from, a more collaborative environment and adds energy and bodies to the "high adventure" visions of Godfrey.
Ogden's cluster got its start when Curt Geiger, then vice president of Descente North America, convinced the Japan-based ski-apparel company's higher-ups to move its headquarters from Denver to a downtown location in 2004. They were drawn not by state incentives but by the promise of a gondola, an idea being floated by Godfrey and others at the time, from downtown Ogden to the eastern side of town, with a second leg leading up to the slopes. Goode Skis soon followed Descente, helped along by free access to a lake near downtown, renamed Goode Lake, where it can test its water skis.
On a sunny September day, I slip away from the notebook and the interviews for a run through the streets and hillsides of Ogden. I head east from downtown, past the stately First Security building, which yearns for some ski or software company to come in and ease its emptiness, continuing toward the mountains, along streets lined with brick arts-and-crafts style bungalows in various states of disrepair that would easily fetch a half-million each in Boulder, Colo., but sell for a fifth of that here. I wave to a crowd milling in front of the Al-Anon place, and hear angry screaming from inside a rundown bungalow and wonder if I should call the cops.
Whatever's in Utah's secret sauce, one thing is clear: It hasn't been dolloped out to everyone. As much success as Ogden has had in bringing jobs to downtown, the greater metro area continues to have unemployment and poverty rates higher than its neighbors. Likewise, the Wasatch Front's prosperity has not trickled outward to many other parts of the state, where small isolated communities like Green River struggle chronically and now wait desperately for something, anything, even a nuclear power plant. And even as the state hands out millions of dollars worth of incentives to Wall Street giants, it is the worst in the nation at funding elementary and secondary education, a slap in the face to long-term economic prosperity.
The pavement ends and I head up a steep trail to a place where I can sit and look out at the gob of humanity that sprawls to the edge of the Great Salt Lake. It was not far from here that, 165 years ago, Brigham Young looked out onto this scruffy and treeless valley and saw it as the Promised Land, or at least decided it could be, with enough hard work. He knew that he couldn't simply unleash his minions and expect them to go forth and build a cohesive home in this hostile land. The Western frontier ethos wouldn't work here. They'd need guidance, cooperation and strong central planning to make the "desert blossom as a rose." Young never retreated from that, even when it got ugly: He forbade Mormons from selling wheat to Gentiles (though Gentiles could work for it), and in at least one instance failed to stop violence against Gentiles.
And then there's Matt Godfrey. He wanted Ogden to be the kind of place he would be happy to call home, a bustling downtown with young folks heading out on mountain bikes from not-too-expensive homes after a day at high-paying, professional jobs with outdoor gear companies. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifices and a sometimes-heavy hand from the government.
True, some of his efforts crashed: The gondola remains no more than a dream, as does the $14 million velodrome and the free-standing ice-climbing tower. Descente moved out into the suburbs and fired Geiger, who subsequently started his own downtown gear business. Even Envision Ogden, a nonprofit started by Godfrey and others to provide a non-governmental economic development organization, perished after it got caught up in a campaign finance scandal that's still under investigation.
Still, by nearly everyone's reckoning, Ogden's come a long way in the past decade. There are new jobs, great trails and a pleasant downtown peopled by a vibrant new community of folks drawn by the changes. Some of the credit goes to Godfrey, but mostly it's attributable to the paradoxical politics of Utah, a pragmatic if unlikely blend of free-marketeering and a pro-planning, Keynesian approach. Godfrey embodies that.
"I'm financially very conservative," says Godfrey, responding to those who have compared him to Joseph Stalin more times than he can count, "but I also don't believe in a free lunch. If we're not willing to invest in our own community, why should we have the gall to ask others to invest in our community? People were saying, 'It's a big gamble.' Yeah, it is, but doing nothing is a much larger gamble."
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.© High Country News