CEDAR CITY — Jon Huntsman Jr. kicked off his campaign to return as Utah’s governor Thursday with a stop at an accounting firm, telling the employees and customers gathered that their southern Utah community is “ground zero” for how the state will deal with what he sees as its most pressing issue — growth.

“The discussions around 2020 are going to be around what do we want our state to look like, to feel like. Is it going to be neighborly? Are we going to be sprawled out of control?” he asked the crowd of about 50 people, advising them to “hang on for the ride, because if you don’t start thinking ahead, you’re going to fall behind.”

That means southern Utah could end up facing problems similar to those in the counties where Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles are located, Huntsman said. “Then you’re done. We have the luxury basically, of, if we’re smart, staying ahead of the curve.”

Former ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. says public service behind his decision to run for governor

The decisions made in the coming years by the state “are going to shape who we are, what we look like, what we feel like, our communities big and small,” he said. “I learned as governor a pretty simple thing. You’re not trying to make decisions on the here and now, you’re planting seeds that will harvest in the years to come.”

His brief speech drew a few laughs, including when he said it was “the first time I’ve been on the stump because we just started an hour ago.” Huntsman, who resigned in 2009 as Utah’s governor shortly after the start of his second term to become U.S. ambassador to China, announced on KSL Newsradio early Thursday morning that he is running again.

Besides the visit to the Kohler & Eyre certified public accounting firm, Huntsman also tapped briefly into his experiences in China as well as more recently, as U.S. ambassador to Russia, in an appearance at Southern Utah University’s Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service.

Mostly, though, he answered questions from students on a wide range of topics, and then held his first news conference where he pledged he would serve out the full four years of his term if he wins next year’s election and promised his answer would be “Nyet, no” if asked to serve in a future presidential administration.

Huntsman also said he’s “up to speed on what’s happening” in Utah despite spending much of the past decade out of the state.

“Once you’ve been governor of this great state, you never disconnect yourself,” he said. “So yes, I will not be leaving. I’ve done my federal service.”

He said he does not see serving as U.S. secretary of state in his future.

The issue of whether Huntsman might leave Utah again for another high-profile position in Washington or elsewhere in the world is expected to be a focus of the race to replace Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not running for reelection after serving since Huntsman resigned more than a decade ago.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, so far the only candidate in the race besides Huntsman polling in the double-digits, wrote in a recent Deseret News op-ed: “Everything I need in a home, a career and a community is all here,” pledging to complete any term. “This campaign is neither a stepping stone, nor is it laying the groundwork for a bigger job.”

Cox took another jab at Huntsman, son of the late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. and brother of Paul Huntsman, Salt Lake Tribune owner and publisher, while talking to reporters at the Utah K-20 Summit at Utah Valley University Thursday.

“My family does not have a billion dollars. We don’t own the Salt Lake Tribune. We don’t have those types of resources, so we’re going to need a lot of help if we’re going to be successful,” Cox said, saying Huntsman “getting into the race doesn’t change what we’re doing in any way. We’re just going to be us.”

St. George Mayor Jon Pike, one of some 126 mayors who have endorsed Cox, was dispatched to the SUU campus shortly after the Huntsman event. Pike called Cox “the true champion of Utah, uniquely able to represent both rural Utah and the Wasatch Front.”

Huntsman said Cox’s comments about his family were “nothing new. We’re just going to stay focused on what we think is right for the state, tackling the big issues going forward, and ultimately leave the election in the hands of the people.”

Other contenders in what at this point is only a Republican race also weighed in on Huntsman running.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she looked “forward to contrasting my experience, and plans for Utah’s future, with his,” while businessman Jeff Burningham said he’ll be “making my case for why Utah needs a job-creating, innovative outsider, instead of a career politician.”

Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, among a list of Republicans still considering the race, said he is “appreciative of the service the Huntsman family has provided the state both locally and nationally” and that he always expected Huntsman to run.

Huntsman’s first public appearance after announcing his candidacy had been billed as a speech on “Utah and the World,” but students seemed to want to know more about his stands on issues close to home, such as the controversial inland port project near the Salt Lake City International Airport.

The question is not whether the inland port will be built, but where, he said, suggesting a better location might be in Tooele County or someplace else because of concerns about the Salt Lake Valley’s air quality.

“We have a big problem, a big problem, and not a lot of easy answers,” Huntsman said.

He said more needs to be done to combat both homelessness in Salt Lake City and a high rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth. Mental health care for the homeless is “woefully lacking,” Huntsman said, while there’s been a “collective failure” to combat youth suicide.

The effect of growth was something Huntsman brought up repeatedly, telling the students they should be thinking about whether Cedar City should become another Silicon Slopes, the name for the high-tech corridor along I-15 in Salt Lake and Utah counties, or focus on agriculture-related industries.

“What do you want your tomorrow to look like?” he asked. His appearance on the Cedar City campus is scheduled to be followed by stops at other universities around the state, including Utah State University in Logan on Monday and Weber State University in Ogden on Tuesday.

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez