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Mormons in the mix

Published July 25, 2005 1:19 am

Washington County population boom religiously diverse
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

ST. GEORGE - Retired chiropractor Duane Francis uprooted his family from their San Diego home in early June so he could enjoy a little golf in this smaller, safer locale.

But Francis really picked St. George for one reason above all others: "We came to be around more Mormons."

He isn't alone. Thousands stream into Washington County from Southern California, Las Vegas and the Wasatch Front, making this scenic region, surrounded by mesas and redrock, Utah's fastest-growing area.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can't build churches fast enough in Utah's burgeoning southwest corner, where more than 250 Mormons move in each month.

Gray and brown stuccoed homes dominate swank new subdivisions and in the heart of each - whether it be Coral Canyon or Winchester Hills - is a brand-new stake center, capable of holding a handful of LDS congregations, known as wards.

"The stakes are just crying for buildings because they can't house all of the members," said Dennis Patten, a St. George architect who has shepherded LDS Church projects through design and construction for 20 years.

The LDS population is sure surging, but non-Mormons are streaming in even faster, making this historic LDS stronghold increasingly less Mormon.

In the past 15 years, Washington County has seen its LDS population double, while the population as a whole has almost tripled, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of LDS membership data the church provides the state for demographic purposes.

In 1989, Washington County's population was 75.5 percent LDS. In 2004, that figure dropped to 61 percent. Nearby Iron County, which includes Cedar City, has seen a similar shift, from 75 percent in 1989 to 62.3 percent last year.

If these trends continue, Mormons will make up less than 50 percent of southern Utah residents between 2015 and 2020 - about 10 years faster than the state as a whole.

So while families such as the Francises are not uncommon, the average transplant more closely resembles Jacque Hinchman, who moved to St. George from Las Vegas nine months ago.

Hinchman and her new husband have just moved into a two-level house, with a view of the nearby cliffs on a street where home construction surrounds them.

Hinchman stayed in another home while her new one was being finished and she was a little frustrated when their next-door neighbors appeared friendly, but stopped talking to them once they found out that they were Lutherans, not Mormons.

"That is not the norm," she said. Most have been kind, though she has found it difficult making new friends.

"People are friendly, but extending the hand of friendship? That doesn't happen much."

The Hinchmans have slowly made friends through their work and their church. They hope to meet some new people at the gym, too. The ongoing religious diversification can only help, she said.

''Know your neighbors'': Local Mormons are well aware that many of the new residents don't share their faith and they say they are not at all concerned.

In fact, David Jeppson, president of La Verkin Stake, said the diversity is healthy.

"My wife and I have lived a number of years in communities where we were very much a religious minority," said Jeppson, who once called Seattle and Berkeley home, but now lives in Toquerville. "We found that the interchange with people of other faiths enriched our children, broadened their tolerance, deepened their love and understanding and helped them strengthen their own beliefs."

Many area LDS leaders also see the growing non-Mormon population as a chance to share their faith.

"It gives us a greater opportunity for missionary work and to be good examples to our neighbors," said LDS Bishop Steve Gustaveson, who lives in the Coral Canyon area of Washington City.

In wardhouses throughout the county, LDS congregations have discussed efforts to introduce themselves to their non-Mormon neighbors and to pass on the names of potential converts to missionaries.

In the St. George 16th Ward, they have focused their energies on the rising Latino population, according to Bishop Calvin Robison, who is also the county clerk and auditor.

"We know it is an opportunity to share the gospel with them," he said. Robison has talked to a few men in his congregation who became fluent in Spanish when they served missions. He has encouraged them to seek out new Latino friends.

And he has urged the ward as a whole to "know your neighbors and invite them to events."

"We do open the doors and invite them in and try to convert them to the right lifestyle but it is a particular challenge in some areas," Robison said.

He points to crime in St. George as one of the "big concerns" associated with the region's changing demographics.

The crime rate has fluctuated in the past decade, but violence and property crimes have jumped sharply since 2002. Some of the biggest increases are in assault, domestic violence, fraud and vehicle theft.

"I know we have a good community, a good lifestyle, and we are hoping to keep that same lifestyle," Robison said.

St. George Mayor Dan McArthur has noticed the changes to the city's population, but he believes the general feel, which he calls the "Dixie spirit," remains intact.

Residents' true concerns are increased traffic and strains on the water supply, not the changing religious makeup.

Defying the Common Wisdom: With rapid religious diversification, coupled with more ethnic diversity, the "common wisdom" dictates that southern Utah would also slowly become more politically moderate, according to Rodney Decker, dean of Southern Utah University's College of Humanities and Social Science.

But that doesn't appear to be the case. Rather, Washington County may have become more conservative as the LDS percentage of the population has declined.

Since 1988, roughly the same time period The Tribune examined LDS membership data, Washington County voters have continued to strongly support Republicans. County Republicans had their best showing in the 2004 presidential race, with 80.9 percent of voters supporting President Bush.

Consequently, during that time period, the best the Democrats ever mustered was 19.2 percent in 1996 for the re-election of President Clinton.

"We used to say the Democrats could hold their meetings in a phone booth," joked Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner, who is also an LDS bishop.

It appears Democrats could continue meeting in compact spaces for the foreseeable future, though it will probably get a little more crowded as the county grows.

"I don't see any real likelihood of drastic changes in the politics of this area," Decker said.

That's because of the demographics of those who are streaming into Washington and Iron counties. They tend to be older, more affluent and looking for an area with a small town, secure feel, characteristics that generally describe more conservative people, Decker said.

"There must be 10 Democrats in St. George. Everyone is a Republican," said newcomer Hinchman. "But that is OK, because I'm one, too."

Living In Flux: Living in flux: Glen Jolley has witnessed decades of change from his store windows on St. George Boulevard. He opened Jolley's Ranch Wear in 1965, at a time when the county's population was less than one-tenth what it is today. At the time, this prime business district was still lined with homes, and residents parked their cars on both sides of the street. Then, the boulevard was the only way for travelers to get to Las Vegas. Now it is the main drag for area businesses and is constantly choked with traffic.

Jolley weathered the business difficulties when big box stores moved into town and he has reaped the benefits from Southern California transplants looking to buy their first Stetson hat or pair of cowboy boots.

And he welcomes the newcomers. All of them.

"You can't build a wall around Utah or St. George or anyplace," said Jolley, who lives in Cedar City. "You just have to live with the change. As LDS, we don't want to hide ourselves from other people. We want them to come and join us."

mcanham@sltrib.com