Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Utah this week to deliver a speech on Thursday about the global economy, international trade and the state’s important place in it all. As a former governor, he will recognize Utah as a great laboratory of democracy in America. He will see that the state’s strong free-market economy, robust institutions of civil society, amazing natural beauty and extraordinary people make Utah an exceptional place to live, work, play and grow a business.
That description, combined with Utah’s long-held place as the crossroads of the West may sound like colloquial self-aggrandizement and an easy applause line in a visiting dignitary’s political speech. If the vice president does his homework, though, he will discover that Utah is poised to be not just the crossroads to the West, but the crossroads to the world.
The skeptics may snicker at that suggestion, and they wouldn’t be the first. When pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley, they made a bold, prophetic declaration about the future of the area. At the driving of the golden spike connecting the nation by rail, similar sentiments where shared, and scoffed at by some.
Even just 30 years ago, more than a decade before the Olympics brought the world to Utah and years before Silicon Slopes grew into mountains of industry from sandy hills between Salt Lake and Provo, Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke regarding the history of the vision of Utah going from crossroads of the wilderness to crossroads of the West to crossroads of the world.
President Hinckley began by recounting the moment early pioneer leaders climbed a little knoll, now called Ensign Peak, surveyed the land and proclaimed a big vision of the future. He suggested that had a reporter heard the group on that July morning in 1847, they would have scoffed at the foolish naïveté of the ragtag group of leaders and ridiculousness of the crazy idea and stated goal they declared.
“They did not look like statesmen with great dreams. They did not look like rulers poring over maps and planning an empire,” President Hinckley stated. “They were exiles, driven from their fair city on the Mississippi into this desert region of the West …”
President Hinckley continued, “I marvel at the foresight of that little group. It was both audacious and bold. It was almost unbelievable. Here they were, almost a thousand miles from the nearest settlement to the east and almost 800 miles from the Pacific Coast. They were in an untried climate. … They had never raised a crop here. They had never experienced a winter. They had not built a structure of any kind. These prophets, dressed in old, travel-worn clothes, standing in boots they had worn for more than a thousand miles from Nauvoo to this valley, spoke of a millennial vision. … They came down from the peak that day and went to work to bring reality to their dream.”
Cynics and skeptics will challenge a vision of Utah as crossroads to the world. The reality is Utah has been quietly working, patiently paving and firmly forming the foundation of that crossroads for years. A few measurable facts:
- Utah has the most diversified economy in the country, according to the Hachman Index.
- The state has a strong global presence, with $14.4 billion in international exports last year and $15.1 billion in imports.
- Utah’s tech sector is the second fastest-growing in the nation. It’s growing at nearly double the rate of California’s.
- The Salt Lake City international airport expansion is underway, setting the stage for more routes and better global access.
- The inland port, despite its challenges, is moving forward.
- Utah’s workforce remains one of the most well-educated and productive in the nation.
- The international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brings the state a unique world view, along with diverse language skills and global reach.
- The state has been stewards of its Olympic legacy, caring for its venues, nurturing new young athletes and is poised to welcome the world back for another Winter Games.
- Utah’s beauty, natural resources and outdoor industry draw millions of international visitors to the state each year.
In order to extend current success and firmly plant itself as the crossroads to the world, Utah has big challenges to face and overcome, and all will require great leadership at the state and local levels and partnerships in the national and international space. Some of the difficulties are the byproduct of success, such as addressing air quality, transportation and stress placed on the environment. Utahns are committed to finding such solutions as part of their stewardship. Housing shortages, homelessness, opioids, mental health and how to educate a growing population will require solutions as big as the vision to become the crossroads to the world.
Utah is poised to address these, and other issues, because like their forbearers, Utahns know that while seeing the grand goal from higher up is great, you still have to come down from the peak and get to work to make the vision a reality.
The greatest cause for confidence in achieving this big, audacious goal is Utah’s most priceless and powerful export — its people. Not only do tens of thousands of young Utahns fan out across the globe as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ, but many others are stationed as leaders and employees of businesses and governments, and countless individuals and families contribute to local communities in far-flung places around the world.
Vice President Pence will undoubtedly tout the good that comes from Utah’s entrepreneurs and business people and the importance of pushing and accelerating the administration’s trade, economic, deregulation and tax policies. Those are important conversations on critical topics.
But the vice president also may want to climb a little peak behind the Utah State Capitol and catch a view of what an audacious vision, combined with hard work and great people, can become. Then he can come down from the peak and share with his colleagues in Washington and across America that he found the keys to creating a crossroad to the world in the crossroads of the West.
Correction: A previous version indicated Vice President Mike Pence arrives to Utah on Thursday. He arrives Wednesday evening and gives a speech Thursday morning.