St. George • Debi Robinson wasn’t “California Dreamin’ " when she drove home from her last radiation treatment on the Garden Grove Freeway in Southern California nearly two decades ago.
Watching an empty plastic garbage sack blowing across the busy highway, her mind was focused elsewhere — on redrock canyons, desert flora and cerulean skies.
“I thought, ‘This place is sucking the life out of me,’ " said Robinson, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “We have to get out of here.”
Their destination, Debi and her husband Greg decided later, was Washington County, near Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks where they had vacationed for years. Two years later, in 2006, they were on the road to Utah, eventually taking up residence in Ivins, about nine miles west of St. George.
Half a continent away in Wisconsin, Rob and Mary Goodman were contemplating their next move seven years ago when he retired as director of a professional children’s theater in Milwaukee.
“Where should we go?” Rob remembers asking Mary. “She said, ‘I don’t want to live in Florida or Arizona … But I want maximum sunshine, as much heat as possible, a place near a major airport, good healthcare and some culture, and I want to live in a small town.’
“So I googled all that and St. George, Utah, kept coming up,” Rob continued “We had never been to Utah, but we came for a visit. And on the third day we were hiking in Snow Canyon and Mary said, ‘This is it.’ That was in May, and by July 4 we had sold our home and moved.”
All Roads Don’t Lead to St. George
Unlike Rome, not all the roads travelers take lead to St. George or Washington County. But as the anecdotes shared by the Robinsons, Goodmans and other newcomers attest, more of them are doing so. That is also underscored by the data.
According to recent estimates, Utah added 61,242 people to its population from this year’s July 1 midpoint compared to the year before, according to experts and demographers with the Utah Population Committee. Roughly 38,141 — or 62% — are newcomers to the Beehive State, the largest in-migration in Utah since World War II.
Washington County’s numbers grew by 4,276, or 2.3%, over that period, half a percentage point higher than the state’s 1.8% average. Approximately 91% of southern Utah’s growth was due to in-migration. Moreover, the county had the highest growth of any metro area in the country between July 2020 and July 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute, which assists the Utah Population Committee to compile the annual data, chalks up the area’s growth to two main factors. First, she said, is the county’s expanding and increasingly diverse economy which grew by 4.7 percent from November 2021 to November of this year, compared to the state’s 2.6% average.
Second, Gochnour added, Washington County has a great quality of life due to its access to amenities, and proximity to national parks, trails and golf courses.
“The main drivers of migration [to an area] are employment-related, college-related and due to retirement [opportunities],” Gochnour said. “Washington County has all three — strong job growth, Utah Tech University and a climate that is very attractive to older adults.”
Lifestyle sits atop Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli’s list. He said Washington City’s low crime and residents’ patriotism, respect for traditional values and small-town virtues are attracting people to relocate to his city, which now numbers more than 30,000 people and is the state’s third most-populous city south of Utah County, behind only St. George and Cedar City.
“We’re not chasing growth, but we welcome those who want to be a part of the fabric that we’ve woven here over the generations,” said Staheli, while acknowledging that growth poses challenges with respect to providing infrastructure and affordable housing.
Moving out, moving up
The Robinsons, like many newcomers in the area, are not fully on board with that growth. The last thing they want is for the St. George area to resemble the busy metropolitan area they left behind. Still, Debi said it is important to keep things in perspective.
She said traffic in the area, while on the upswing, is nowhere near as bad as it was in California, where a trip from their Orange County townhouse in Fountain Valley to virtually anywhere was more of an ultra-marathon than a short sprint.
“I hate the freeways in California,” she said. “If you want to go visit a friend in California you have to plan for a couple of hours’ delay on the freeway.”
Greg Robinson, who initially was unsure about leaving the Golden State, said their Utah lifestyle is a marked upgrade over the one they had in California. For starters, they have exchanged their townhouse for a larger single-family home with a swimming pool, hot tub and a “million dollar view” of Red Mountain.
Another bonus is that two couples who are among their closest friends have also moved to the area, and Debi’s younger sister, who is retiring, is planning to move to Ivins next year.
The Goodmans, who settled in nearby Kayenta, have had little trouble making friends and acclimating to the area.
“Kayenta is very inclusive,” Rob Goodman said. “I have Mormon friends, Republican friends and super-progressive friends. I have a lot of friends from the Salt Lake City area who have moved down here. We have been able to blend in pretty well.”
Chip and Linda Van Wert, who moved from the Denver suburb of Lakewood ten years ago and now reside in Washington City, said their Utah home is newer and nicer than the one they left behind. They also appreciate Washington County’s amenities like a small airport, quality medical care and a good countywide library system.
“We wanted to move to Santa Fe but we couldn’t afford it,” said Linda, a retired technical librarian. “At the time there was a recession going on and a lot of areas we looked at had kind of cratered, but St. George looked like it had weathered the [economic downturn] well, which was a factor.”
For all that Washington County is, Orange County transplants and political conservatives Tony and Patricia Sweett are grateful for what it is not — “liberal tax-and-spend California.”
“We both knew we wanted to get out of California because of the crappy politics there,” said Tony, who sold his auto repair business in Orange County and now lives in Virgin and works as a part-time truck driver.
There are 67,164 registered Republicans in Washington County compared to 9,796 Democrats, according to Melanie Abplanalp, Washington County elections supervisor.
Acclimating and assimulating
As attractive as Washington County is, newcomers soon learn it is not without its quirks. For example, when Debi Robinson moved to the area she sensed something was missing.
“And then I figured it out,” she said. “There were no people of color around. We were used to California, which is a real melting pot.”
Washington County is about 92% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 estimate. Its residents are also predominantly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just over 61% of residents are members of the predominant faith.
That can present a challenge to move-ins who are unfamiliar with the LDS faith. Fortunately for the Robinsons, a Lowe’s worker making a home delivery gave them the lowdown about the religion. And one of Greg’s co-workers loaned him a copy of “Mobsters and Mormons,” a comedy about a mobster and his family in the federal Witness Protection Program relocating to a strait-laced Utah town.
“We show it to our friends when they come to Utah to visit us,” Greg said. “They think it is hilarious.”
The Robinsons say their LDS neighbors are largely unobtrusive. Debi says many of their best friends are ex-Mormons.
For Van Wert, Utah’s address system which often emphasizes numbers and eschews names can be confusing. When she gave her nephew her home address, he told her she must live out in the country where they only use GPS coordinates instead of street addresses.
Despite the quirky first impression Washington County sometimes gives, few of the newcomers The Tribune interviewed are having second thoughts about moving there.
“We haven’t regretted moving here for a single second over the last seven years,” Rob Goodman said.
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