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What can Dubai or Zurich teach Utah about growth? A new commission wants to find out

Dubai Skyline
Paul Morgan
Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The skyline of Dubai, and the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, at dusk, May 26, 2019.

Utah’s economy is changing in some fundamental ways, fueled by shifting demographics and global events that have upended supply chains and driven up inflation.

“I just have never seen a time in my career when I've seen such a crashing of cascading events,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Utah leaders say the confluence of issues requires a more coordinated economic strategy. It can no longer focus primarily on jobs and attracting new business, but must also account for things like housing, water infrastructure and education.

The group overseeing the long-term strategy is the Unified Economic Opportunity Commission, created in 2021. It recently drafted an economic vision with the lofty goal of creating the “world’s best economy and quality of life” for all Utahns.

While still in the early stages, the strategy will tackle eight main areas, from education and workforce development to taxes, regulations and international relationships.

Ultimately, however, much of their work boils down to managing the state’s growth. While there have been many previous planning efforts, commission leaders say even more coordination is needed. It’s launching a statewide conversation this summer to identify public priorities around various growth scenarios and explore the impacts of each.

“Oftentimes we hear people say those are fabulous ideas — that community over there should implement them, but maybe not mine,” said State Planning Coordinator Laura Hanson in a commission meeting Wednesday. “Our hope is to have people realize that we all need to be part of the solution and they're willing to make those changes in their own communities.”

The commission is also considering visiting areas that have successfully dealt with issues Utah is facing. One of the options considered includes studying how Zurich, Switzerland managed to build an efficient public transit network despite being constrained by mountains. Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said there could also be a trip in September to Dubai and Jerusalem to better understand how each is tackling water conservation.

“If all we look at is what's in front of us physically, we're not really exploring best practices,” he said. “I think being on site and really understanding whether it's growth, water, any of the topics that we've talked about is really, really critical.”

One of the primary goals of the trips, he said, will be to directly influence legislation during the next general session.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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