When Andrew Wittenberg and his wife relocated from Nashville, Tennessee, to Salt Lake City in January 2012, they were taking a risk. Although both had job offers, neither had family or close connections in the area at the time. They weren't sure quite what to expect.
"It was for professional reasons that we initially moved here, but we stayed because we found tremendous friends, a great neighborhood, our niche," Wittenberg told HR Dive. "Now we have a four-year-old little boy and he's got a great network through his school day care. It's just become home."
Wittenberg believes in the city so much that he eventually quit his job as a broadcast news anchor and moved into his new role as marketing and research manager for the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development. In his role, he helps "tell the story of Salt Lake City" and attract new businesses and residents to the area.
A region growing rapidly
Wittenberg is just one of the many people who has moved to Utah in recent years. The Census Bureau Population Division found that the state's population increased at a rate of 17.6% from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state in the nation. In March, LinkedIn released internal data showing that Salt Lake City has been winning the pandemic migration race, with a 12.3% gain in net arrivals to the area from April 2020 to February 2021.
The findings fit squarely in with the trends showing that workers are increasingly abandoning traditionally attractive coastal cities like San Francisco, Seattle and New York for smaller, landlocked or sunny cities that may have been losing population until just a few years ago. Tampa, Florida; Richmond, Virginia; and Cleveland have also attracted new residents.
Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, has been a resident of the state all her life. She's been heartened by its renewed vibrancy. "I've really enjoyed seeing the transition … It was not too long ago where we had a pretty significant brain drain and that has definitely been reversed," she said.
Some of the growth in recent years has been tied to businesses relocating to the area, attracted by the low cost of doing business, high energy efficiency and a favorable tax climate. Utah has a densely populated corridor, with around 80% of residents living along the Wasatch Range, making talent easily accessible. The population is also highly educated, falling at spot No. 10 nationally in the U.S. News and World Report's rankings for education due to an above-average high school graduation rate and access to the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah State University.
In its quest to attract businesses, Salt Lake City competes with a slew of regions and cities nationwide: the Bay Area, Boston, North Carolina's Research Triangle, San Diego, Nashville, Atlanta and more.
Increasingly, though, as LinkedIn has shown, the city has done just as well attracting remote workers and other relocators. One-third of the population boom in the city comes from people moving in from outside Utah.
The 'jewel' of the Intermountain West
Why the flock of newcomers? "I like to say, 'This is a very sticky place'," Dee Brewer, executive director of the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance, told HR Dive about the city's appeal. "People come through here for college, for skiing, for the Red Rock [Canyon], or just end up here on convention or visiting friends. And they see very quickly the combination of lifestyle, work-life balance and access to the outdoors."
Located along the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City offers quick access to top-notch skiing — without the cost-of-living sticker shock of other mountain-adjacent cities like Denver or Vail, Colorado. "It's very reasonable to get up and ski a couple hours in the morning, and still work a full day in Salt Lake City," Brewer said. Mountain biking, hiking, climbing and fishing also draw resident adventurers into the mountains and countryside.
While research into how the pandemic has changed the way people interact with nature is only just emerging, some early studies have shown that more people are spending time outdoors, and they recognize the mental health benefits of being outside. While much of that activity was limited to walking, hiking and birding in the beginning of the pandemic, most ski resorts were able to open back up by the 2020-2021 season.
It's very reasonable to get up and ski a couple hours in the morning, and still work a full day in Salt Lake City.
Executive director, Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance
Potentially given its proximity to great outdoor options — and likely also due to the relative youth of its population — Utah is especially active, ranking 12th nationally for public health. The young and active population also makes for an active downtown scene.
"We're very interested in an Innovation District that is emerging in West Salt Lake, driven by some investment at the University of Utah," Brewer said. The city has 158 restaurants and bars downtown, and is becoming known for its developing craft cocktail scene. Salt Lake City is also working to establish a public market, similar to Pike Place in Seattle or San Francisco's Ferry Building. In addition to these developments underway, the city already has several professional sports teams and a full-time symphony, opera and ballet.
The growth has spurred an onslaught of downtown residential development to accommodate all the newcomers, Brewer said. Six residential towers are currently planned or under construction, including what will become the tallest building in Salt Lake: a luxury apartment tower with 39 floors.
Industries taking the stage
Perhaps the most well-known sector that has taken shape in Salt Lake has been tech, with companies and workers leaving Silicon Valley, Seattle and other major tech hubs to set up shop in the region. There are now 95 tech companies settled downtown, Brewer told HR Dive, and more dot the Wasatch Range. The area has earned the nickname "Silicon Slopes," with Adobe, Overstock.com, Ancestry.com and more based there.
One sector that may be less obvious to outsiders but is particularly strong and growing in Salt Lake City is biotech and the life sciences, driven in part by the University of Utah. "I think you will really see Salt Lake City continue to become one of the major biotech centers in the world," Brewer said.
While it is still getting beat out in the biotech space by cities like Boston, Philadelphia and San Diego, it's still home to more than two dozen biotech companies, including heavy hitters like Stryker, Merit Medical Systems and bioMérieux.
Rather than nurturing one single industry, however, Utah is perhaps more notable for its ability to create a strong economy across the board. The Hachman Index, which assigns states a rating from 0 to 100 based on economic diversity, using gross domestic product or employment as measures, gave Utah a 97.1 — the highest ranking of any state. The ranking is an indicator of economic health, suggesting the state hasn't put all its eggs into one industrial basket. (Wyoming, a state with an economy that is heavily tied to mineral extraction, ranks dead last, for example.)
That ability to support multiple industries is part of why Forbes ranked Utah's economy first in the nation, with the highest GDP growth of any state.
Problems of a growing city
The growth has not come without challenges, all three sources told HR Dive.
As with any region that rapidly attracts high-income industries and earners, residents are feeling the pressure in the housing market. "Certainly, a big buzzword right now is 'affordable housing' in the city," Brewer told HR Dive. "One downside of being a popular place to move and relocate, is that then the people who are already here say, 'Wait a second, this isn't becoming what I love about Salt Lake City, this is changing, this is not ... the direction I want to see. So you have to be very thoughtful about it. It's really a delicate balance."
Given the exodus from Silicon Valley, the danger of creating another Silicon Valley — another place too expensive for those not in tech, and eventually, maybe even too expensive for those who are — is ever-present.
"Our focus for a couple of years now is not just attracting those from outside, but also asking what we can do on an economic development level to help people who are already here," Wittenberg said. "That's certainly a huge focus for us."
A housing shortage in the city has meant there are tens of thousands more people in need of housing units than units available. The city started a Funding Our Future initiative in part to address affordable housing. The program is intended to help low-income families afford housing through options like shared housing and rental and mortgage assistance.
That gap has been getting smaller due to what Foxley calls "The Utah Way": a spirit of collaboration that brings people together to solve difficult problems.
That spirit may be put to the test as Salt Lake grows, but for now, those who promote the state are optimistic about the city and its future. "It really is a special place," Wittenberg said. "It's a great place to live, a great place to raise a family."