Salt Lake City’s Secret to Escaping the Recession

With the LDS Church’s financing of a huge downtown development, “in Salt Lake, the cranes kept moving,” says Mayor Ralph Becker.

National Journal
Nancy Cook
April 15, 2014, 8:05 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Salt Lake City and The New West.

Salt Lake City May­or Ral­ph Beck­er is not your typ­ic­al Utah politi­cian. For starters, he’s a Demo­crat and a proud pro­gress­ive in a Red State, the son of a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or, who grew up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and at­ten­ded a private Epis­copal school. Yet, Beck­er settled in Utah roughly 40 years ago, drawn to the West through sum­mer jobs with the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice. He at­ten­ded law school at the Uni­versity of Utah, ran his own plan­ning and con­sult­ing busi­ness, and then rose through the ranks of the Utah state­house be­fore as­sum­ing of­fice in 2008 as the may­or of Salt Lake City, a bur­geon­ing and in­creas­ingly di­verse met­ro­pol­it­an area where the city pop­u­la­tion now clocks in at just un­der 200,000 res­id­ents.

Beck­er re­cently sat down with Na­tion­al Journ­al to talk about Salt Lake City’s eco­nom­ic fu­ture — from its shock­ingly low un­em­ploy­ment rate to its in­clu­sion on na­tion­al “Best Places to Live” lists to long-term chal­lenges such as air qual­ity, edu­ca­tion, and chan­ging demo­graph­ics. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

One of the strik­ing data points about Salt Lake City is its low un­em­ploy­ment com­pared with the na­tion­al rate. It seems that Salt Lake es­caped the af­ter­math of the re­ces­sion bet­ter than most places. What’s the secret?

There were a few things that helped us. One is that we have a very di­verse eco­nomy; it’s not like we were com­pletely de­pend­ent on one sec­tor. Cer­tainly an­oth­er key factor was that just be­fore the re­ces­sion star­ted, the LDS church star­ted to think about build­ing a $1.5 bil­lion down­town de­vel­op­ment called City Creek Cen­ter. There was a mall in its place once, but now it is an ex­ample of one of the first LEED-cer­ti­fied, true mixed de­vel­op­ments. The LDS church paid cash for that de­vel­op­ment. As Lane Beat­tie, head of the Salt Lake Cham­ber says, the dif­fer­ence between Salt Lake and oth­er cit­ies is that in Salt Lake the cranes kept mov­ing. So really, there was vir­tu­ally no slow­down in de­vel­op­ment.

We’ve also been the great be­ne­fi­ciar­ies of the na­tion­al trend of more and more people mov­ing back in­to and liv­ing in cit­ies. I would at­trib­ute part of this to the Uni­versity of Utah, which is this in­cred­ible en­gine of en­tre­pren­eur­i­al activ­ity and spin-offs. There is just this flow of new busi­nesses that brings lots of new en­ergy in­to the com­munity. We have a young work­force that is re­l­at­ively well edu­cated and an area that has a very high qual­ity of life. People find it easy and en­joy­able to live here for a vari­ety of reas­ons. My own sense of it is that there has been this whole com­bin­a­tion of factors that has provided for an un­usu­al level of prosper­ity at a time when oth­ers faltered. We wer­en’t im­mune from [the re­ces­sion], but we didn’t ex­per­i­ence it the way oth­er people did.

What is the LDS church’s role in the eco­nomy here? You men­tioned its massive down­town de­vel­op­ment, City Creek Cen­ter.

They play both a huge role and an in­vis­ible role. They do not get in­volved in a lot that we do in the sec­u­lar world. They’ll weigh in on maybe li­quor or gay-mar­riage ques­tions, is­sues that are doc­trin­al for them, but oth­er than that, this is the home for their in­ter­na­tion­al re­li­gion, and they take great pride in hav­ing us be a wel­com­ing place. You see that in­flu­ence play out in a num­ber of ways. They in­vest in our down­town. But when it comes to play­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the de­cisions we make day-to-day about the city or the state, they’re hands-off. That does not mean that the Mor­mon cul­ture isn’t per­vas­ive in a whole lot of de­cisions in this state, but it’s not in an overt, heavy-handed way at all. They also don’t ask for any­thing. When they did the City Creek de­vel­op­ment, they didn’t ask for the tra­di­tion­al eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment in­cent­ives like breaks. They just put the money in­to it.

In­ter­est­ingly, a ma­jor eco­nom­ic con­cern here among politi­cians and busi­nesses is an en­vir­on­ment­al one: poor air qual­ity. What are you, as may­or, do­ing to tackle it?

Well, I’d in­vite you to read my State of the City talk. I laid out my views on the is­sue and what we can do and what we have to do to get oth­ers to help us. The city is one-tenth of the pop­u­la­tion of the re­gion, and we’re a smal­ler part of the geo­graphy. We have done and will con­tin­ue to do a lot to di­min­ish our con­tri­bu­tions to the air pol­lu­tion and the val­ley. But the only way we’ll be able to make sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the air qual­ity is to take it on on a re­gion­al scale and to ad­dress the greatest con­trib­ut­ors to air pol­lu­tion. You cer­tainly don’t see it today [in terms of the weath­er], but in the winter sea­son, if we don’t get reg­u­lar storms com­ing through here, the in­ver­sions trap the air in this val­ley and that in­cludes all of the pol­lut­ants in the air. It doesn’t take very many days for the pol­lut­ants to build up in the val­ley.

We can con­vert our city fleets. We can give every res­id­ent a greatly dis­coun­ted trans­it pass. We can redo our streets, so they provide for bikes and trans­it and make our city more walk­able. But the fact of the mat­ter is that things have to be done at the state level, so we need the state to take on great­er and more meas­ures to ad­dress air pol­lu­tion. It not only af­fects people’s health; it af­fects the eco­nomy and how at­tract­ive this area is for com­pan­ies and folks look­ing to move here.

It seems like tack­ling air qual­ity would be hard, since so many down­town work­ers com­mute in­to the city by car.

We’ve had the largest de­vel­op­ment of urb­an rail of any­place in the coun­try in the last few years. We’ve built over 140 miles of urb­an rail. We have built this in­cred­ible rail sys­tem, but the trans­it sys­tem is not com­plete. Our geo­graph­ic­al cov­er­age with our buses is not that great; our fre­quency of ser­vice is not that great. Our hours of op­er­a­tion are not that great. In this last le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, a num­ber of us were push­ing very hard to raise the abil­ity of loc­al gov­ern­ment to in­crease our taxes and rev­en­ues for trans­it. But we can’t raise the cap [on those taxes] without state au­thor­iz­a­tion. They didn’t pass it, and it frus­trated me. I’m not say­ing that we’re go­ing to go from 95 per­cent of the trips be­ing made by auto­mobile and flip that, but I think that if we provided good, con­veni­ent trans­it, a lot more people would use it.

What are the long-term eco­nom­ic chal­lenges for the city that most worry you?

I think the air-qual­ity is­sue will con­tin­ue to haunt us un­less we do a bet­ter job. I think that edu­cat­ing our kids well, so they have op­por­tun­it­ies (and equal op­por­tun­it­ies) to be suc­cess­ful is a big un­der­tak­ing. We have com­mit­ted edu­cat­ors and com­mit­ted lead­ers, but their re­sources are lack­ing, par­tic­u­larly for the chan­ging demo­graph­ics we have.

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