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Another decade of Utah’s success will require bold leadership

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Framers work on a new home in Saratoga Springs on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. For the third year in a row, Utah County surpassed Salt Lake County in population growth, making it the new epicenter of population growth in the Beehive State.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah begins the decade of the 2020s on a solid foundation, poised for continued success.

However, sustained prosperity is by no means guaranteed. Each generation of leaders must pursue the right initiatives, make the right decisions and provide bold, visionary leadership to maintain Utah’s progress and enviable quality of life.  

I believe three overarching issues must be wisely and courageously addressed in coming years. Each is an ongoing challenge that will require a decade of focus and hard work. As Utah elects a new governor and many other leaders this year, I hope the candidates will outline how they plan to address these fundamental issues.

Big challenge No. 1: Dealing with rapid population growth

This is Utah’s most critical issue by far, and it covers many pressing needs, including how we provide excellent education for our growing school-age population, how we maintain mobility and avoid highway gridlock, how we generate good jobs for a growing workforce, how we keep housing affordable and available, and how we clean up our air and prevent increased pollution — even with more people and more vehicles.

Those knotty problems will provide more than enough challenges for Utah’s next generation of leaders. Many of the solutions are interrelated, but still difficult. It will take real leadership to make hard choices and convince citizens to accept new housing and mobility options, properly fund education, follow quality growth principles, increase investment in public transit, and welcome mixed-use urban centers.

Big challenge No. 2: Rural economic development

Utah is one of the most urbanized states in the country. Rural communities need jobs that support families to grow and keep children from moving. However, it’s very difficult to reverse the urbanization trend while jobs, education and arts and cultural opportunities are concentrated in urban areas.

Barriers to strong rural economies include water shortages; government ownership of two-thirds of Utah land; struggling or declining energy, extraction and agricultural industries; and low-paying service and tourism jobs.

Strengthening rural economies would help solve some of Utah’s urban growth problems, like congestion, poor air quality, and housing shortages. If more of Utah’s growing population can be distributed across the state instead of concentrated on the Wasatch Front, the entire state benefits.

Our rural areas will provide plenty of challenges for innovative leaders in the next decade.

Big challenge No. 3: The mental health crisis

Utah has strong families and neighborhoods. But our suicide, depression, addiction and opioid abuse rates are at emergency levels. The causes aren’t completely obvious, and the solutions will be difficult. Clearly, the pressures of modern society and increased social isolation are part of the puzzle.

In the next decade, our dependence on digital technology, and the isolation it can bring, will only increase. Screens will be in front of our faces almost constantly. Digital communications, including social media, will continue to replace in-person relationships. Instantaneous, mostly negative, news from all over the world will be delivered in real time, 24 hours a day. The ability to anonymously disparage, harass and compare oneself to others will become even bigger problems.  

This will require whole new ways of thinking and reacting. It will require more counselors and major programs to educate the public about signs of suicide and depression. It will require programs to eliminate the stigmas associated with mental health challenges. It will require teaching the value of real relationships, not digital connections, and ways to experience nature and the real world, not the distorted world seen on a screen.

Government, alone, can’t solve any of these problems. It will take churches, nonprofits, businesses, families, neighborhoods and communities. But it will require bold, visionary leaders with innovative solutions to set the right tone, bring together all stakeholders and motivate action on these challenges of the next decade.

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.