How the Mormon GOP runs Utah with a collectivist touch

  • Paul Lachine
  • Steeples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rise above the sprawl of Lehi, south of Salt Lake City on Utah's booming Wasatch Front.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • Matt Godfrey, who just finished three terms as mayor of Ogden, Utah, pushed for downtown redevelopment in buildings such as the former American Can Company, now home to Amer Sports.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, a new downtown project developed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • The city-sponsored restoration project on Jefferson Avenue, in Ogden

    Ed Kosmicki
  • The church-built Colonial Court apartment complex in Ogden. The church is also renovating its Ogden temple and working on a $250 million mixed-use development surrounding it.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • Utah's mass transit revolution began before the 2002 Olympics with the federally funded TRAX light rail system. It continues to grow with city, state and federal dollars.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • A young family watches indoor skydiving at the Salomon Center sports adventure complex in Ogden, Utah.

    Ed Kosmicki

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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.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Oct 30, 2012 04:14 PM
The LDS is nothing but a gigantic tax dodge, to the detriment of everyone that isn't a mormon bishop. What a bunch of hypocrites and thieves. It is appropriate that the IRS is the single largest employer in Ogden, while at the same time the state gives Goldman Sachs $43 million no strings attached. Perfect poster child for today's GOP.
Jeff Gerke
Jeff Gerke says:
Nov 06, 2012 06:19 PM
I know a lot of LDS people that are not hypocrites or thieves. The type of people that would give the shirt off their back for anyone. Of course there are some bad apples.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Nov 07, 2012 11:37 AM
Jeff, I agree that a lot of LDS people are really good and beautiful people, I have spent many years traveling in the Southwest and have met, partied with, and been helped by them. I should have made clear that I was speaking of the bishops, they are the people that have bought shopping malls and ranches and department stores and gas stations and avoided paying taxes by making those businesses part of the church. By paying those taxes to the LDS instead of the elected local, state, and federal governments, they have created a de facto government within the LDS. I think most Americans agree that churches should not be running governments.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 11, 2012 07:23 PM
I am curious why in the statistical chart on federal spending the editors chose not to include defense spending. Also there is no indication on the charts whether the government jobs chart does or does not include defense jobs.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Nov 12, 2012 07:47 AM
Kathleen: Excellent questions. I'll do my best to answer:

1. Typically such comparisons as these don't include defense spending. That's because one could argue that since federal defense spending is for the benefit of the entire nation, it's unfair to put it into a particular state's expense "column" (despite the fact that that spending does benefit that state's economy). Obviously, if defense spending were included, each state's "debt" to the federal government would be much greater.

2. Defense jobs are included in the jobs chart. They are included here because a defense job has an impact on the economy that is similar to any other similar-paying job.

I hope this answers your questions.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 16, 2012 05:38 PM
I guess I am confused as to what the chart shows then. I thought it showed how much money tax payers of a given state send to the federal government and how much money the federal government sends or spends in the state. So if the Defense Department buys planes built in California or spends money to maintain Air Force or Naval bases in Washington that wouldn't show in this chart?
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Nov 19, 2012 12:03 PM
It's a really good question, and unfortunately I don't have a great answer, although I can tell you why I chose to leave defense spending out.

This type of comparison is going to be messy and inexact no matter how you slice it. That's true if you're trying to figure out whether a particular individual is getting more from the federal government than he/she pays in taxes; it's even more true, I think, when you try to extend it to the state level. But the defense spending thing...

1. The first reason is for consistency's sake. Typically, when this federal revenues vs. spending comparison is done, defense spending is left out. I suspect that this is for the reason I gave before: Because defense spending is for the benefit of the whole nation, it's could be decreed unfair to put defense spending in the "expenses" column for a particular state, even if the spending was done in that state (as opposed to social security, Medicaid, or grants to schools, for example).

2. Of course, this leaves plenty of grey areas like the ones you mention. If a Utah company is paid by the military to build rockets, it's providing jobs to the people in that state, in the same exact way as the IRS is providing jobs to people in that state, for the benefit of the entire nation.

3. This is where it gets messy, and the person who's making a graph like this one has to make somewhat arbitrary decisions about what kind of spending to include, and what kind not to include. The Consolidated Federal Funds Report is set up in a way that makes it easy to pull defense spending, in general, out of the equation. It has two major categories of spending: Defense and Non-Defense. Everything else is a line-item.

So, this is where precedent comes in again: In order to be consistent, I chose to leave out defense, though I had the exact same qualms and questions that you had.

Generally speaking, the overall message remains the same whether you include defense spending or not: Nearly all Western states receive more in federal spending than they collectively pay in taxes. With defense spending added in, things simply become more lopsided for every state. Colorado is the exception to that: Without defense spending, it pays more in taxes than it gets back. With defense spending added in, it, too, has a spending deficit with the feds.

Thanks again for the questions.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 25, 2012 02:06 PM
Thank you, Jonathan, for your comments. I may have been operating under a misconception or things have changed. Because a number of years ago, I saw numbers that showed that Oregon was a net exporter of federal taxes with the explanation that Oregon has no bases or large military contractors. But that may have been when Oregon's economy was in better shape. And when Oregon wasn't getting timber payments.
I also think that since Defense is something like 60% of Congress's "discretionary" spending that the impact of that money should be noted when we look at the decisions that the western Congressional delegations make.
Jeffrey Mendenhall
Jeffrey Mendenhall says:
Feb 18, 2013 11:13 AM
The LDS heritage of collectivism is an ironic fact of history rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the typically rabid GOP extremists in control of the Utah state legislature. As a former teacher and curriculum writer, I've seen an admirable commitment to education become a hostage to political views so outrageous as to call the word "democracy" a "code word" used by Communists to indoctrinate our children. The Alpine school district went so far as to remove this word from their century-old district charter! The consequence of such utter nonsense is that Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the US, in part due to our ridiculously high birth rate, lower even than Mississippi. Stupid, selfish, and demonstrably wrong for continued investment into the state (dumbing down a previously well-educated workforce). If governing for the "common good" as Jefferson called it is beyond the ideologues on Capitol Hill in SLC, then simple, basic dollars and cents must motivate semi-enlightened decision-making. Brother Brigham would hate this city, and this state today.