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2002 is year for Utah to rebound

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After surviving a year filled with "whammies," Utah's economy should rebound in 2002, according to state officials and industry insiders.

The 2002 Economic Overview, presented Thursday to Gov. Mike Leavitt at the Wasatch Front Economic Forum, detailed the bleakness of 2001 while predicting better times to come.

Job growth slowed to its lowest point since 1983, while unemployment reached a nine-year high. According to the report, about 50,000 people were out of work each month in 2001, a 40 percent increase from the previous year.

The tourism industry took a significant hit after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Net farming income has yet to recover from the lean years of 1994 to 1996. The high-tech sector decelerated, due in part to the general economic woes and the fact that Utah has no large corporations doing research and development in the technology industry, the report said.

Still, Neil Ashdown, deputy director of the governor's office of budget and planning, said he expects Utah's economy to rebound in the latter quarters of 2002.

"Utah's economy did phenomenally well during the last decade," Ashdown said. "The economy slowed down in 2001, in large part due to September 11. But we do feel fortunate that our economy is quite strong compared to other states. The nation is in a recession. But we are still seeing job growth."

Leavitt said at the forum the events of last year caused him to re-evaluate the state's budget priorities. However, he said he is still optimistic.

"After September 11, the world changed for all of us," he said. "Within weeks, it became clear that this was one of the most influential economic events of this generation, or at least in many decades. It has caused us to have to reflect on our priorities, and to make some very difficult cuts. And we've made them."

For this year's budget, Leavitt said he had only three priorities: education, homeland security and minimizing any use of the state's "rainy day" fund.

Building an educated work force will be the key to growing a healthy economic future in Utah, Leavitt said.

"Our work force is our comparative advantage," he said.

In the near-term, however, Leavitt and a panel of economic specialists said Utah should receive a much-needed kick-start from the upcoming Olympic Winter Games.

The state's floundering tourism industry, which suffered giant setbacks from the "triple whammy" ? a national recession, the terrorist attacks and Olympics-related hotel overbuilding ? still should benefit from increased media exposure during the Games, said Steve Lundgren, area general manager of Marriott Hotels.

"I am very optimistic," Lundgren said. "The Olympics has been a challenge for us to this point. But Salt Lake City and Utah are not well-known throughout the world. We believe that the Games will share a message that will translate into travel and tourism. Salt Lake City is a very popular destination. We just need to have it discovered."

Dean Reeder, director of the Utah Travel Council, was not so upbeat.

"I am not optimistic," he said. "And I don't share the perspective that the Olympics is some kind of mega-opportunity to market Utah as a brand. For most people, watching the Olympics is a passive experience. To promote travel, we need to change that connection, so it's more active."

Optimistic or not, Reeder maintained Utah has much to offer.

"Ever more so, we have what they want," he said. "Ever more so, people want something genuine, something authentic and real, something that can help them with two things: discovery and recovery. Utah has both of those things. My concern is that we communicate that effectively, and that we don't sit passively by and let NBC (television) do it for us."

E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com