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Drew Clark: What makes Utah great? Families, inclusiveness and collaboration

FILE - Travelers arrive at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015.
FILE - Travelers arrive at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

I frequently travel throughout the United States on business. I'm always thankful when I fly into the Salt Lake City airport and realize I am home.

Many others who live here love it. For example, at the StartFest technology conference earlier this fall in Provo, several panels probed what makes Utah so hospitable to entrepreneurship. And yet, said organizer Clint Betts: "It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Utah so unique and special.”

Part of the "problem" is that right now the state has so many advantages, from the country's most thriving economy to unparalleled venues for natural recreation.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I'd like to highlight four other, unique threads that knit together into the fabric of the state's culture.

Family and kid-friendly

As anyone here in the state for more than a few days can attest, Utah has a lot of kids! It has the second-highest family size in the nation, after Hawaii, and the 11th lowest percentage of children in poverty. The prevalence of children also leads to the lowest median age of any state. At 29.6, the state is eight years younger than the nation as a whole, and four years younger than the next closest state.

Even those without large families or without children recognize and respect the premium that Utah's culture places on families and on family time.

Evidence comes from the prices that museums charge to accommodate large families, or from houses with a bedroom or two more than is normal elsewhere in the country. The prevalence of many children in the state breathes a culture of life and energy into everything that happens here.

Welcoming and inclusive

People are friendly here. This virtue is hard to quantify. But I know that our family's experience of receiving countless gifts of bread, peaches, sweets and other welcoming gestures is by no means unique.

For example, I had lunch not long ago with a friend who relocated from Chicago. He and his husband recently relocated to Salt Lake City. They were expecting a culture shock, but what they got instead were neighbors who delivered cookies. "We never got this in Chicago," he said.

While the national news media lavished headlines on the recent election of an openly gay mayor in Salt Lake City, Utahns have long known that the state's welcoming attitude is not limited or parsimonious.

A cooperative spirit

Utah's business community is thriving and the free market philosophy is widespread in the state. None of this diminishes the strength of its collective approach to tackling community problems.

This may come from Utah's pioneering role in the cooperative movement, where collective entities facilitated the public provision of everything from power plants to banks. "While the co-operative movement was a worldwide phenomena in the 1800s, it was particularly strong and pervasive early on in Utah," accord to "Extension, Enterprise, and Education: The Legacy of Co-operatives and Cooperation in Utah," of Utah State University.

"Nineteenth-century Utah pioneers embraced the spirit of cooperation, building shared irrigation systems and establishing co-op stores within their communities."

That philosophy even carries on today. It can be seen in collaborative approaches to preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympics, this year’s process of relocating the state prison, the state’s openness to immigration and refugees, and in communities banding together to build modern-day fiber-optic infrastructure. In sum, Utahns understand that home-grown solutions may be necessary when outside approaches or institutions aren't bringing out the best for the state.

Good moral values

Moral choices are by nature individual. But the collective impact of countless such decisions has a decided impact on the moral climate of a community.

Take three widely recognized vices: Gambling, promiscuous sexual activity and alcohol abuse. People of many religions (or of no religious views) can recognize the detriments to public health imposed by such behaviors.

Put another way, would you rather live in Potterville, or in Bedford Falls, of the classic Frank Capra movie, "It's a Wonderful Life"? We can readily see that when states and communities cater to base instincts and lack the public-spiritedness or civic duty of George Bailey, we live in a poorer and less desirable place.

Measuring statistics on such activities is particularly tricky. But on those that can be tracked, Utah scores very well. Utah and Hawaii are the only two states with no legalized gambling, for example. In regard to the number of bars or establishments with alcohol, Utah ranks either near the bottom or at the bottom.

Living in a family friendly, a welcoming and a collaborative state is — I submit — the real reason Utah continues to do so well on so many national rankings of “quality of life.” It can be hard to put one’s finger on what makes Utah great. But it’s worth the effort to do so.

Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Kirton McConkie, where he deals with technology, media and telecommunications. He speaks for himself in this column on politics and values. Connect on Twitter @drewclark via email at