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Big changes — and big growth — for Utah County over next 50 years

VINEYARD, Utah County — Thien and Brittany Nguyen took a big risk on a small town.

He wanted to quit his job at a mutual fund company and try working at a startup. A freelance illustrator, she also craved a change. So the pair left Gilbert, Arizona, with their infant son, Tyson, last summer for a new home in Utah County's growing high-tech corridor.

"We're here for the long haul," Brittany Nguyen said.

Families like the Nguyens, are expected to drive a population boom that will triple the number of Utah County residents over the next 50 years to 1.6 million, a new report projects. Workers from out of state and growing families will help Utah County edge closer to Salt Lake County's longtime No. 1 spot and anticipated 1.7 million population, according to estimates released Monday by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

"That’s a tremendous amount of growth," Pam Perlich, the institute's director of demographic research, said Monday at a panel discussion with state lawmakers, Utah County leaders and Utah public education officials, as well as water and transportation managers.

Household growth accounts for roughly three-quarters of the increase, the analysis found, and outside migration for the rest.

By the time 2-year-old Tyson reaches retirement age, his spacious 2,100-square-mile county will have urban neighborhoods, more foreigners and others from out of state, not to mention packed schools, light-rail cars and more roads, researchers estimate.

Nguyen, 28, is the human resources director at Jolt, a 70-person software company in Orem that helps businesses train and manage employees who work in restaurants or other jobs outside of an office.

The move to Utah, he said, is a "long-term game plan." And he isn't alone. Several of his colleagues have come from Silicon Valley in search of cheaper rent, access to hiking and skiing, and job opportunities, he said.

"Those are all pulls," Nguyen said.

In the 50-year picture, Utah County comes in at No. 1 for job growth, creating 1-in-4 new jobs. Across the state, most job growth will come from construction, followed by “professional and technical services,” which includes tech jobs.

Despite the surge, Salt Lake County will remain the anchor for employment as home to 4-in-10 workers.

In the big picture, the Wasatch Front will meld into one large metropolitan area, Perlich said. Her team's findings on Utah County are part of a larger state analysis that lawmakers and others say they are consulting to plan Utah's future.

By 2065, 40 percent of new Utah residents will live in Utah County, and for every resident who comes from elsewhere, three will be born there, according to the report. The analysis doesn’t forecast exactly how big a role the high-tech sector will play in and around Lehi, but it contains some indicators.

"For right now, that’s the hot spot on growth,” Perlich said. Her findings come as a bustling tech sector expands south of Point of the Mountain, where Adobe Inc. last week announced plans to expand its operation.

Lawmakers and others at the institute's new home on South Temple — formerly the historic LDS Business College — acknowledged they were stunned by the figures.

"I’m both excited and a little terrified about what all this tells us about the future of the state," said Utah House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, one of the panelists.

"The Legislature has got some heavy lifting and a lot of thinking to do over the next years," especially when it comes to spending and recrafting its tax code, he said, without offering any specifics.

Utah County’s representatives in the Legislature must brace for an influx of constituents in communities that currently count more acres than people, Wilson said.

Changing politics likely are part of the more diverse, more urban picture of Utah County's future. But leaders of the Republican stronghold aren't too worried and will grapple with that change as it comes, said Utah County Commission Chairman Bill Lee.

Panel moderator Natalie Gochnour, associate dean at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, asked Lee if his county is prepared to handle the growth.

“The county’s going to have to be ready, to a certain extent, and I think they will embrace that,” Lee replied.

The County Commission is looking into expanding Provo’s airport and a private company has proposed building a commuter bridge over Utah Lake, he said.

Not all the challenges associated with the boom are new. The growth will stress an age-old issue: availability of water in the desert state.

“We will have to develop water supplies," said Todd Adams, deputy director with the Utah Division of Water Resources. "We will have to conserve."

When it comes to roads, the state already has directed transportation projects to unclog traffic near Point of the Mountain. But it will need to find new ways to manage the problem, said Ted Knowlton, deputy director for the Wasatch Regional Council, as Utah County communities balloon near the border with Salt Lake.

The anticipated growth puts more pressure on Utah schools in their battle to retain teachers, as 329,000 — about 50 percent — more students enter kindergarten.

“We have to start growing our teachers at a young age,” Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of public instruction, told the panel.

The demographics team that authored the report cautions that the long-term projections are estimates. They are not guarantees.

For the Nguyens, the gamble on a move to a town full of other young families is paying off, they say.

"All of these homes are brand new. Everyone's looking to make friends," Brittany Nguyen said. "That's kind of a nice place to be."