Learning lessons from Utah

Last week I got to visit another part of the country on a trip for work — one of those trips that gave my counterpart at another newspaper a chance to give me a quick tour of the communities she covers. It was fascinating.

I also ran into an Ohio University grad who said he still missed the rolling hills where he sent to school … but it seems as though there is enough about this region that drew and kept him that he may never return.

I was visiting two larger communities near Salt Lake City. I did a little of the touristy kind of stuff before I had to get down to work, made my own observations and spent several days asking a million questions of my favorite people to quiz — newspaper people. (Ask my own staff. I’m … curious.)

Among the many things that surprised me about the region was how quickly it seems to be growing. Too quickly, if you ask those who have to deal with the traffic caused by road construction, housing shortages, encroachment of the suburbs on agricultural regions and the mountains … it’s jarring to witness.

As I was driving between two of the communities, in what I thought was a heavily urbanized area, I looked just off the interstate and saw a grouping of weathered farm buildings and some cows. They were remarkably out of place, squeezed between a storage facility and what I think was a convenience store. I was told it has become quite a concern — farmers who sell out to developers at a high price and then choose to move to the southern part of the state are taking a valuable piece of the community with them. Those who hold out end up stuck as an island in a sea of development.

But still, it seemed to me like a better problem to have than the alternative.

“They can’t develop fast enough for the people that want to live here,” explained one reporter.

Well what in the world is making the population explode, and how do we get some of it in the Mid-Ohio Valley?

To start, there is no denying the roll of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in what has happened.

“A lot of their children attend local universities and want to stay here,” the reporter said.

Can you imagine that, here at home? Rather than our young people setting countdown clocks to the day they can jet off to a distant college and then seek their fortunes elsewhere, what if they wanted to learn and work here?

The LDS Church gets a lot of the credit for the diversity of population, the number of immigrants and the variety of food and entertainment options. As another reporter explained to me, when young people are encouraged to spend a year in mission, it means they go to other countries, learn the language, learn to love the food and bring those influences home with them.

But forget about the big factor we know will never be part of the MOV’s economic picture. It is not a constant in the region — one county experiencing exponential growth is approximately 84 percent Mormon, but another county also growing in leaps and bounds has just 30 percent.

More attainable factors include the number of industries that are coming to Utah — much of it bringing technology and medical jobs.

A reporter said the region is now in competition with Silicon Valley.

There are also well marketed (and well used) outdoor recreational opportunities: skiing, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting. A real emphasis has been placed on outdoor sporting opportunities. I can attest to the quality and ease of access to hiking within their park system being a big asset. I loved it.

It seems as though a genius for applying for development grants combined with clever use of the new tax money coming in has given this region a chance to shine.

But there’s a downside, of course. Pay increases for most of the population are not keeping pace with the increases in cost of living, particularly housing costs. There is an affordable housing crisis. There is a growing sense that the middle class is disappearing as the wealthier just keep doing well, while the working poor find themselves in a cycle of struggle. (Sound familiar?)

One idea for alleviating at least some of the housing shortage is the requirement that all new developments include a percentage of units that are for lower income tenants. Another is that many of the revived multi-story buildings in the region have become mixed-use, with apartments filling the upper floors.

Communities with everything from strong mayor/council forms of government to city manager forms of government are getting things done, partly because they incorporated input from residents of the neighborhoods in multi-year planning documents that let the people decide how they wanted their neighborhoods to grow. (Communities that are still reacting, rather than working from a plan are having a more difficult time adjusting.)

Mid-Ohio Valley communities can do a LOT of what is being done in other parts of the country, though a starting point must be working to attract major employers. There’s no reason the kinds of businesses fueling booms (real ones) in other parts of the country could not be doing so in the Mid-Ohio Valley and the rest of Appalachia.

This part of Utah includes a community that was once home to a thriving steel mill. It closed in 2001. Miners and steelworkers across Appalachia can relate to what those families experienced. It would be eye opening for some of them to see the change in that community now.

An attitude shift is in order. A change in the way we tackle our current challenges, including the affordable housing shortage we already have; and a better approach to community planning, must be accompanied by a departure from the fatalistic “that’s the way it’s always been,” approach. Politicians and economic development officials must continue to take a hard look at tax and regulatory reforms that will allow for new economic opportunities. (And the backroom protection of the status quo must be eliminated).

We can do it folks. It’s happening in places that at one time had no fewer challenges than what we face. It’s time to decide to make it happen.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com