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.