OREM — While researchers note Salt Lake City is, and will likely remain, the economic epicenter of the Beehive State for the foreseeable future, Utah County has become the primary engine of the state's nation-leading growth.
Projections anticipate that a full third of the expected 3 million new residents who will call Utah home in the next 50 years will make their way to Utah County. And, Utah County could surpass Salt Lake County in total population by 2065 — a swap that's sure to alter the dynamics of the entire Wasatch Front.
With an eye toward that anticipated influx of 1 million new residents, and their attendant needs in housing, employment, education, recreation and transport, Utah County leaders this week launched a visioning and planning effort in hopes of staying ahead of that curve and maintaining the quality of life that has become one of Utah's biggest selling points.
Economist Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said two primary factors will continue to drive the growth of Utah's second most populous county.
"It really comes down to proximity and land availability," Gochnour said. "Right now, there are about 230,000 acres of developable land in Utah County while Salt Lake County is down to 30,000 to 40,000 acres. When businesses and residents locate to Utah County, they get the less expensive housing and commercial real estate but still have easy access to the arts, culture and entertainment amenities centered in Salt Lake City."
The Valley Visioning project launched at an event at Utah Valley University this week and is aimed at crafting answers to these questions:
• How can travel in and through Utah County remain convenient?
• How can we grow jobs that pay competitive wages and that ensure people can live and work in the same area?
• How can we prepare our kids and recruit talent to fuel economic and job growth?
• How can housing be kept affordable so that future generations can live near where they grew up?
With a mission statement that reads much like the goals of the ongoing Point of the Mountain Development Commission, the Valley Visioning effort will focus specifically on Utah County "to engage residents and stakeholders in a process that establishes a community-supported vision for growth in Utah County."
Valley Visioning co-chairman and executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development Val Hale said while it was once acceptable to allow growth to move forward in a relatively organic manner in Utah County, evolving economic pressures, and the expected level of population influx, makes it critical to plan now for how to accommodate the onslaught.
"Utah County has always had a lot of land to work with and has been able to build out and grow in really unfettered ways," Hale said. "But, those days are now past. We know the population will double in the next 30 years and if the Utah Valley is going to continue to be a great place to live we need to plan for, and prepare for, that growth.
"We need to be purposeful and smart about the way that happens."
Non-profit planning and public outreach group Envision Utah will be staffing and facilitating the effort, with financial backing coming from Ancestry.com, DoTerra, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and others.
Envision President and Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening said the 18-month effort will occur in three phases that will include; about six months devoted to outreach and information gathering; six months to assemble desired outcomes or scenarios and; a final six months to zero-in on a consensus plan.
Bruening said the effort will focus on multiple critical challenges that will come with the new growth in Utah County including economics, education, land use and transportation.
Hale noted the Valley Visioning process will also include a robust education component as preparing for Utah County's future will require some basic, but critical, breaks with past practices and assumptions.
"Education is going to play a key role in this," Hale said. "The Utah Valley that everyone has known for the last 150 years has changed and the days of half-acre lots for single family dwellings is fading.
"High-density housing is really one of the big things that has to be addressed. If residents want their kids and grandkids to live and work in the Utah Valley … some high-density, affordable housing will need be part of the solution. It's going to require a paradigm shift with people and some really thoughtful planning and fortitude on the part of our politicians."
Managing growth in a manner that does not exacerbate already poor air quality, water-use issues and dwindling open space are factors that will also play into planning for Utah County's future.
Bruening said projections indicate the lion's share of Utah County's expected growth — about 85 percent — will be generated from within. A 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report highlighted that unique demographic factors are at play in Utah County, making it notable even among communities with the nation's leading birthrates.
"Utah County stands out because it has both a large population of more than half a million and a high ratio of births to population, ranking fourth on the list of counties with more than 50,000 people," the report reads.
Gochnour said the Valley Visioning project continues the state's long tradition of taking a forward-looking stance on preparing for future scenarios. And, it's one that will help avoid, or at least minimize, the pitfalls — like gridlock, exorbitant housing costs and grimy environmental conditions — that have been the bane of other fast-growing metros.
"It's critical that we invest in the data and the value studies and public policies that will help us shape the future the way we want it to look," Gochnour said. "We get to decide."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Envision Utah President and Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening as Breuning.