As many of you read this, about 40 of us will be spending a few days in Salt Lake City, the destination for this year’s Regional Leaders Trip, checking out what that area does well and what we can learn from Utah’s aggressive economic development during the past 15 years.
We’ll be seeing how the Salt Lake City metropolitan area took advantage of its opportunity to host the 2002 Winter Olympics — and how the business momentum from that mega-effort has continued more than a decade later.
We’ll also be hoping to discover exactly how Salt Lake City, actually its own version of Colorado’s Front Range stretching northward to Ogden and southward to Provo-Orem and beyond, has managed to develop such a healthy, diverse economy despite having two of the same characteristics generally regarded as detriments to economic development in Colorado Springs.
Those traits are the very strong, deeply held conservative lifeviews throughout Utah, coupled with the long-dominating religious presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons.
We’ve heard stories about major companies turning their backs on Colorado Springs and citing those very reasons, with the twist of substituting evangelicals for Mormons.
Yet, Utah has overcome any such potential or perceived stigmas, instead convincing all kinds of companies and industries to feel welcome and supported by elected leaders and the public alike.
You think we have lightning-rod politicians in Colorado? Utah has Sen. Mike Lee, a Tea Party crusader with views on immigration and other issues that make our own U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn look soft.
Still, Utah in general and Salt Lake City in particular have not lost their appeal to outsiders looking for the right place to locate their offices, plants and even corporate headquarters.
We’d like to find out how they’ve pulled that off so effectively. Sure, the Olympics helped. But the Winter Games came and went 12 years ago. For so many other host cities around the world, that special aura has faded quickly, replaced by frustration and anguish over not being able to capture and preserve those moments on the global stage.
Of course, we also know there are many skeptics in Colorado Springs who see the Regional Leaders Trips as being wastes of time and resources. Why get on a plane and fly somewhere else, those naysayers say, when we have great examples of economic turnarounds and enduring success as close as Fort Collins, Boulder and even Greeley?
It’s true that we could do more to check out what’s been happening north of Denver, although that’s happening more than you might realize.
But it’s also true that many of Colorado Springs’ business leaders have come back from previous trips with new ammunition and ideas to try here, after seeing how well they worked in such places as Austin, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Portland and Omaha.
Granted, we’ve also seen attributes in those cities that have proven difficult to emulate — such as a spirit of shared values and unity among elected leaders at different levels, coupled with a willingness to cooperate on broad-based priorities and projects. Oh yes, and having wide public backing for taxes and special measures to pay for major improvements.
What will Salt Lake City teach the contingent from Colorado Springs? We can’t force those answers, but we do want to see how Utah has dealt with its mass transportation issues, how it has attracted so many vibrant companies and cultivated a better young workforce.
Salt Lake City also has had to overcome its own dark moments, such as the scandal of its original 2002 Olympic organizers being exposed for blatant bribery of International Olympic Committee officials in securing Utah’s bid for the Winter Games.
Funny how we haven’t heard anything more about that, as Utah residents obviously moved forward and put their embarrassment behind them.
In some tangible ways, Colorado Springs has lost what for years had been close ties with the area this group will be visiting. For several decades, Air Force played many memorable football and basketball games against Brigham Young (Provo) and the University of Utah (Salt Lake City). Those rivalries, from the old Western Athletic Conference into the Colorado Springs-based Mountain West Conference, sadly faded when BYU chose to go independent and Utah jumped along with Colorado into the Pacific 12 Conference.
But you can be sure the followers of both Utah and Brigham Young haven’t forgotten Air Force — or Colorado Springs.
And now we’ll see whether those once-healthy relationships might provide some new directions for our area’s future.