Utah’s economy was recently ranked No. 1 in the nation by the American Legislative Exchange Council and U.S. News and World Report. It is now the fastest growing state in the country. This news comes as the state grapples with the natural tension between progress and quality of life. Fortunately, Utah can remain economically competitive and preserve its unique quality of life with an economic development strategy that prioritizes enduring prosperity over unmitigated growth.

For decades, Utah’s economic strategy largely focused on creating a strong business environment and diversifying industry. This approach worked well, serving to reverse the outmigration and brain drain that Utah experienced in the 1980s. Now, the Beehive State boasts the strongest and one of the most diverse economies in the nation, and since 1980, Utah has grown from being the 36th largest state to the 30th. As Utah continues to grow, how should we approach economic development? 

Some argue growth should be stopped, fearing communities and quality of life will change for the worse. That concern is understandable — no one wants increased cost of living, overcrowded canyons and more traffic. But policies aimed at stopping growth can be counterproductive. For example, in Southern California from the 1960s to ’80s anti-growth sentiment led to policies that only shifted development to neighboring areas, producing massive urban sprawl, loss of open space, congested commutes and increased housing costs. 

Others believe we should slow economic development. What may be surprising is that most companies relocating here bring few employees with them, rather they create new job opportunities for Utahns. States will always compete for jobs, talent and capital investment to thrive and sustain quality of life. More Utahns than not understand if we slow economic development, Utah risks being left behind. A study by Envision Utah found that only 26% of residents believe we should try to slow growth by slowing economic development and not approving new housing developments, while 44% think trying to stop growth will only undermine our economy and drive up the cost of housing. 

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From housing to water, Utah must reckon with its growth problems. So what should we do?

Economic development must continue, but we need to pivot our strategy in three ways. First, we should recalibrate the past pro-growth strategies Utah did well, like corporate recruitment. Utah should focus on recruiting companies that offer a host of benefits to our communities, not just high-paying jobs. These companies should invest in Utah’s housing, environment and education through corporate and social responsibility. Utah should also increase efforts to retain existing companies that could be recruited to other states. 

Second, we need to grow the workforce and extend opportunities to more Utahns by accelerating initiatives to upskill and reengage underserved segments of the labor pool. We can do this through workforce programs that better serve the needs of women, rural populations, immigrants and those whose jobs skills may become less relevant in an ever-evolving economy.  

Third, we need to create lasting prosperity for all Utahns by ratcheting up efforts to secure more of the $1.9 trillion in federal funding available through various infrastructure bills, as Idaho and Texas are doing. Additionally, the legislature can continue preserving Utah’s natural environment as it did with the historic $1 billion in funding appropriated for water resiliency over the last two legislative sessions. These changes help sustain our upward economic trajectory while staying prepared for inevitable market cycles.  

Utah’s journey from a remote frontier land cultivated by impoverished pioneers to become the most vibrant economy in the country today is nothing short of miraculous. The Beehive State is indeed the place of industry, and it must remain so as we enter a new era as a medium-sized state. If we are to leave Utah in a position to succeed, we must build on the strengths of our past pro-growth strategy and recalibrate it to create lasting prosperity for future generations of aspiring Utahns.

 Scott Cuthbertson is president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah.