Opinion: Utah takes another evolutionary leap
“Let’s play ball!” said Mayor Erin Mendenhall at the big announcement that Gail Miller, her family company and a group of potential investors would pursue local ownership of a Major League Baseball team in Salt Lake City. The announcement, which includes a coalition of community leaders who have targeted a 100-acre site on Salt Lake City’s west side, provides one of many examples of the “New Utah.”
What is the New Utah? A rapidly growing state like Utah constantly evolves, but there are times when this evolution takes giant steps. It happened in the 1970s with energy, the 1990s with computer hardware and software, and in the 2000s with information and technology, as well as the post-Olympic tourism boom.
My reading of the data suggests Utah has reached another inflection point. This turning point is grounded in unyielding demographic changes and a diverse economy consistently performing at a nation-leading level. I know of no better way to describe it than as a “New Utah” that is larger, more tied to in-migration, more multicultural, older and supported by an elite economy.
Here’s is the evidence.
From 2010 to 2020, Utah transitioned from a small state to a midsize state by leap frogging four states to become the nation’s 30th most populous state. During this decade, Utah’s population passed Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Iowa and currently ranks just behind Connecticut, which I predict Utah will outsize before 2030. In the prior four decades, Utah’s population rank remained roughly constant, climbing just two spots in 40 years. As a midsized state, Utah’s western peers are states like Oregon and Colorado instead of New Mexico and Idaho.
Utah has experienced net in-migration for 31 of the past 32 years; I don’t see this trend changing anytime soon. Net in-migration contributed nearly two-thirds of Utah’s population growth in each of the past two years. In the past, two-thirds of Utah’s growth has come from ourselves (births minus deaths). Two data points do not make a trend, but Utah’s historically low fertility rate is not going to change overnight. I also believe Utah’s high-octane economy will continue to fuel employment-related migration.
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One in four Utahns is now a racial or ethnic minority, making Utah more diverse than states like Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin and similar in diversity to Pennsylvania and Michigan. As recently as 1990, 10% of Utah identified as a racial or ethnic minority. By 2040 this ratio is projected to increase to 1 in 3. Utah’s Hispanic population, at 14.2%, is by far the second largest racial or ethnic group in the state behind the non-Hispanic white population.
Younger to older
Utah’s population 65 and older is projected to increase from approximately 1 in 10 today to 1 in 5 by 2050. This occurs because of an aging population and historically low fertility rates. The aging population changes the structure of the economy with major impacts in health care, transportation, housing and consumer preferences.
Utah’s economy from 2000-2010 generally outperformed the nation, with some exceptions. Since 2011, however, Utah’s economy has consistently outperformed nearly every state, including Utah’s nation-leading economic outcomes during the pandemic recession. Elite is not a word I use lightly, but Utah’s economy has reached elite status.
As a midsized and changing state with an elite economy, look for Utah to attract more national and regional headquarters, international flights, major league sports franchises, cultural amenities, shopping and dining options and other opportunities. But let’s be clear, Utah will also struggle even more with traffic congestion, expensive housing, rising costs, critical land and environmental losses and other growth challenges.
What should the state be doing?
I encourage state policymakers to consider four things:
First, keep an open mind. Be prepared to change and try new approaches.
Second, listen more. Hear the voices of all Utahns.
Third, invest even more. We’ve been investing at historic levels, but I fear it’s still not enough. If we want to preserve what we value, we must forgo current consumption for future benefits. Look no further than the Great Salt Lake.
Finally, unify and dignify. We will be just another midsized state if we don’t work well together and treat each other with love. Utah’s social capital can and should continue to be a competitive advantage.
The New Utah is here. It brings amazing opportunities but also serious challenges that will require our very best.
Natalie Gochnour serves as an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. She also serves as the chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.