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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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.

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