Utah’s recreation riches lure companies and cash, but Gov. Herbert says striking a balance between growth and quality of life is a challenge

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers and boarders enjoy Park City ski area Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

Midway • Back when his firm Lucid Software Inc. was a startup in 2010, CEO Karl Sun was pressured by his investors to locate to the San Francisco Bay Area.

But Sun, a die-hard powderhound, bucked his benefactors, and instead looked to Utah, home of “the greatest snow on Earth" and endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, to headquarter the rapidly growing business. The move to Salt Lake County has paid off for the company, which has had no trouble landing highly coveted techies. Sun taps that easy access to outdoor fun, taking recruits skiing, hiking or cycling.

“Telling them is one thing, but when they see that you really can balance that with work and have an exciting career,” Sun said, "you can have the best of both worlds because they’re so near to each other. That’s one of the reasons they want to stay here in Utah. We hope, over time, more and more people will see that.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also wants more people to see the role outdoor recreation plays in supporting one of the nation’s most dynamic economies.

“It’s a key economic driver for our economy, valued at about $12 billion a year, employs 110,000 people and generates for us, as a government, $737 million per year in taxes,” Herbert said Wednesday at his Outdoor Recreation Summit. “It’s a sector that every state ought to be promoting — even North Dakota.”

Lucid was one of many businesses featured at the gathering.

“That company is growing like crazy ... and ostensibly they have nothing to do with the outdoors. But they need to hire 25 engineers every year to keep up with their growth rate,” Doug Owens, co-founder of Utah Outdoor Partners, told those assembled at Midway’s Zermatt Resort.

“They have to recruit from all over the country, and that means they are competing against Apple and Google, and they need an edge.”

Owens, a former Democratic congressional candidate, teamed with his former election rival, Republican Rep. Mia Love, to launch Utah Outdoor Partners, a business coalition that highlights the importance of the outdoors to the state’s future.

“It goes way beyond just the tourism and recreation sectors of the economy. They are important sectors that add up to 10 percent of the economy,” Owens said, but medical-device makers, tech firms and other employers are equally dependent on access to Utah’s mountains and deserts.

“New jobs are coming to Utah because of the outdoors,” said Owens, who twice lost to Love for the U.S. House seat representing a big slice of the Wasatch Front.

Their group commissioned a survey of fast-growing firms, exploring the reasons why they came to Utah. The top three reasons all had to do with the outdoors.

“They were the ability to attract and retain a workforce, access to outdoor recreation and Utah’s outdoor lifestyle,” Owens said. “These ranked ahead of tax rates and regulatory environment.”

Despite the state’s growing reliance on the public lands that support outdoor recreation, its political leaders have embraced policy positions that have so alienated outdoor gear-makers that they pulled their lucrative trade show from Salt Lake City, along with the millions of dollars attendees spend each year.

Years of tension over public policies that promoted resource extraction and motorized access over conservation led the Outdoor Retailer show to bolt to Denver 18 months ago. The final straw was when the Utah Legislature passed legislation urging the recision of Bears Ears National Monument.

In his remarks Wednesday, Herbert extolled Utah’s commitment to conservation, insisting that Utah invests more in this area than any other state. Utah was the first to set up an Office of Outdoor Recreation in 2013, and 10 other states have since followed suit.

He highlighted a new program that earmarked $5 million in room-tax revenue this year to support local-level projects to develop trails, climbing areas, boat ramps and other amenities to connect people with the outdoors. To date, the program has funded 101 projects, two-thirds of which are in rural areas, including a new bouldering park in Moab.

Herbert noted that the outdoor boom has come at cost in the face of double-digit growth in Utah’s tourism sector over each of the past four years.

“How do we bring Mother Nature and civilization together in the appropriate balance and preserve the integrity of our wild public lands?” Herbert said. “People like what they find in Utah and want to come here — economic opportunity, great quality of life and outdoor recreation that is unparalleled in America today. That fuels the growth that is my biggest challenge as governor. How do you accommodate the growth without diminution of the quality of life we appreciate and enjoy?”

Everywhere along the Wasatch Mountains, homes are creeping up hillsides and trailheads are increasingly crowded. At some point, it may no longer be possible for Lucid’s software engineers to ski and bike before heading to the office because of gridlock in the canyons or access being blocked by new homes.