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.

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