Is Utah's image as a "pretty, great state" losing some of its luster?

While the Beehive state remains one of the busiest growth players in the country, it is experiencing a slight downturn in the numbers of people moving into the state, according to state statistics and a report from the nation's largest household moving company.United Van Lines reported in its 1998 migration study for all 50 states and Washington, D.C., that Utah had 2,158 outbound shipments and 1,874 inbound.

That 53.8 percent out-migration rate represents the first time since 1992 United has logged more people leaving than coming to Utah.

"It reverses a trend where Utah's inbound numbers have pretty much grown every year since 1987," Cliff Saxton, United Van Lines' vice president of corporate communications, said Wednesday from the company headquarters in the St. Louis suburb of Fenton, Mo.

The company's figures, compiled by the American Moving and Storage Association, reflect all types of household moves -- corporate, residential, government and military. They usually are considered a reliable barometer of migration patterns across the country.

But the "moving" statistics don't tell the complete story in Utah.

State government figures show 2,000 more people moved in than out of Utah in 1998. Still, that's a substantial decrease from the 15,000-plus 1997 figure and 6,000 in 1996.

However, Utah still was the sixth-fastest growing state in the country in 1998. And it was No. 11 in income growth.

"We had six or seven years of really incredible growth. We've slowed just a bit, but we remain a very vibrant, very attractive place in terms of population, job and income growth," said Brad Barber, deputy director of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget.

"We've just taken a little breather," said Doug Jex, research director for the state's Department of Community and Economic Development. "All the fundamentals that spurred the fast growth of the last decade are still there. We still have a very strong, very diverse economy and that is the key to continued growth."

Some analysts cited a "slight economic downturn" for Utah's slower population growth.

But that fiscal slide also must be considered in the context of tremendous growth in preceding years, Barber said.

For instance, he said, Utah employment growth was at 3 percent in 1998, compared to the national average of 2.5 percent.

"We were still the 10th-fastest job-growing state, well above the national average at a time when the whole nation is enjoying good growth in job markets," Barber said.

"OK, it's not the 6 percent a year we had been experiencing for several years when we were at the very top of the nation. But we weren't going to sustain 6 percent," Barber said. "We can keep going at 3 percent for who-knows-how-long. The way our economy is positioned now, that's a sustainable figure for years to come."

Barber said Utah's income growth for 1998 was 6.3 percent. The national average was 4.8 percent, he said.

"So we're still considerably ahead of the national curve in personal income growth," Barber said.

When Utah hit its peak in 1995, income growth was 8.7 percent, with the national average at 5.6 percent.

"When we were real hot, again, we were at the very top of the country," Barber said. "We're still hot, but we've just cooled it down a bit."

Barber cited several factors that combined together when Utah went on its big roll.

"We had a real strong development of our high-tech identity," Barber said. "The California economy went through one of its major slumps, and people moved here from there. And we started getting a lot of notoriety, a lot of national attention from the Olympic bid and the outstanding productivity of our work force."

The resurgence of California's economy is considered a significant aspect of Utah's slower growth.

"We don't have the hard numbers on that as yet," Barber said. "But we're speculating that's the case. We believe for the first time since '89 we lost people to California."

Jex said, "Traditionally a good chunk of our in-migration has come from California. It peaked in 1995 during California's recession. They were laying people off out there. We had high-tech companies hiring. That was a recipe for population growth here."

United Van Lines' figures show for the second straight year California registered more moves into than out of the state. But whatever happens in California, state officials expect Utah to keep on trucking along an upward curve.

"The best guess right now is that we'll sit here on the 2,000-plus side for a couple years. Then after the Olympics it'll pick back up," Jex said.

"We continue to post tremendous productivity numbers," Barber said. "We have an exceptionally well-educated, highly motivated work force. Income will continue to grow.

"But slowing it down a little will allow us to get ahead of the game somewhat -- to get I-15 finished and complete other projects. Until we get some of our infrastructure completed, we don't need a lot more growth.

"Yet we'll still provide good jobs for our kids and others in the meantime."

"We're not going back to the '80s where net out-migration was the rule," Jex said. "We'll continue to be a place a lot of people are going to want to live."