Gov. Spencer Cox says he had an idea of what Utah's next state flag would look like when he agreed to join state lawmakers in redesigning the current flag, which has remained mostly untouched since 1913 aside from some minor alterations.
But what he envisioned at the start of the journey, which officially began last year, isn't at all the flag that he and other members of the Utah State Flag Task Force are now proposing to the state lawmakers — and he's fine with that.
"It's impossible for 3.3 million of us to get the flag that we want," he said, staring at a design on a screen before him. "It's about us coming together and finding the very best of each of us. And as you built that one symbol, one color at a time, it all just makes sense."
Members of the task force voted unanimously Thursday to select a flag design to move forward to the Utah Legislature for a vote in January 2023. Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who sponsored the bill that created the task force, said a new bill is currently being drafted to codify the flag change. He is scheduled to present the task force's case to the Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee next week.
The design features white mountains on a blue backdrop over red rock canyons, as well as a beehive and an eight-sided star inside a hexagon. Designers explained Thursday that all of the colors and symbols have meaning tied back to the state.
- Blue represents the state's traditions, such as its lakes and dark skies.
- The white band represents Utah's mountain landscapes. The color can also represent peace.
- The red represents the red rocks of southern Utah. The color also represents perseverance. The design committee chose red over orange for this component of the flag.
- The beehive represents community and Utah's state slogan of "industry."
- The eight-pointed golden star represents hope and the state's eight sovereign Tribal Nations. The placement of the star appears in the doorway of the beehive, which is meant to symbolize the Tribal foundation of the state.
- The gold hexagon around the beehive and star represents strength and unity.
"This is a very exciting day for a lot of people and for us," said David Wicai, director of strategic initiatives at the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement. "It has seemed like a long process but (it's been) well worthwhile."
How we got here
The effort for a new flag began a few years ago with McCay's fascination with the flag. A flag, he argues, can be a simple way to represent and advertise a community from afar.
The issue he had with Utah's current flag is that it's simply the state seal on a blue background. More than a dozen other current state flags follow this pattern, which means the flag sort of blends in with the flags from half of the U.S. states.
Cox noted this as the task force formed last year, referencing the current flag as an "S.O.B" — a joke within the vexillology community that refers to flags that are a "seal on a bedsheet." The North American Vexillological Association rated the Utah flag 58th best among 72 North American state and provincial flags in a review published 20 years ago, and only flags with this concept were viewed worse than Utah's.
The process to redesign a flag slowly grew from there.
Thursday's decision follows an almost yearlong process to collect and review possible flag designs. Utah received 5,703 original designs at the start of the year, which the flag task force and design review committee carefully narrowed over a span of months.
State officials whittled the field to 20 semifinalists, which were revealed in September. The final public comment period received more than 44,000 public comments, Wicai said. This helped the task force narrow the submissions down to five finalists.
Lindsey Ferrari, a consultant for Utah's More Than a Flag initiative, said the public participation far exceeds any other project in state history.
"I've been doing public engagement for 30 years and I've never seen a number like that," she said. "We've done the work for the new (Salt Lake City International Airport), Eccles Theater, for Kennecott's Daybreak project — we've never seen a response like that. People were interested in this project throughout the state."
What’s next for the two flags?
The interest in the flag is a mixture of residents who want a new flag and residents who want to keep the current flag because not everyone has supported the state's efforts. To that end, the design that could soon become Utah's next state flag also instantly received mixed reviews, as well, either over some of its symbols or the color scheme's similarity to Colorado's flag.
Members of the task force expected this; however, they are hopeful that Utahns will give it a chance. McCay sees it as a design that "perfectly" captures Utah's landscape and principles, which was the point of the entire endeavor.
"I've seen the posts on social media. Some people love this idea, some don't. I get it," he said. "What'd I'd ask you is to give this an opportunity. Let this be something that we can all grow together (on) and be unified. ... This flag, while it has components of the past, it also has aspirations for the future."
Ultimately, it'll be up to the Utah Legislature to approve a new flag. Next week's Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee will be the first test of how lawmakers outside of the task force feel about the design leading up to the legislative session.
Following Thursday's vote, McCay said he's confident that the legislature will approve the design but said it will be an "Olympic effort of its own." This includes persuading new lawmakers who weren't a part of the vote to form the task force in 2021. The bill that formed the task force passed with a 49-23 vote in the House and a 26-3 vote in the Senate.
"One of the things that I actually love about new people coming into the Legislature right now is that they have the opportunity to sit in the exact same spot that most of the public is in," he added. "They weren't a part of the design, they weren't a part of the idea, and now it's really an opportunity to see — can we help them understand and appreciate the flag, and adopt it themselves?"
If the Legislature agrees, Utah's current flag isn't going anywhere. It will become the official flag of the governor's office, which means it will stick around the Utah Capitol and other various places, especially where the governor is.
Cox said a new flag won't erase the old one. In fact, he wants people to still fly it if they choose.
"I am grateful for our current flag. It means so much to me," he said. "So many of the most important times of my life, that flag has been present and that flag will continue to be present — and we will continue to pay tribute to that state seal. ... I'm hopeful that (supporters of the current flag) will fly that flag but I'm hopeful that we will fly this flag, as well."