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Home U Rising Natalie Gochnour explains the six transitions happening in Utah and what it means for the state’s future


Natalie Gochnour says the state of Utah is at an inflection point. She calls it the “New Utah.” In this episode of U Rising, Gochnour, the director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, explains how Utah is changing and what it means for state leaders, policymakers and all of us.

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Chris Nelson: Natalie Gochnour says the state of Utah is at an inflection point. She calls it the “New Utah.”

Today we're going to hear why Natalie, who's the director of the university's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, thinks this is the case and what it means for state leaders, policymakers and well, all of us.

Welcome to U Rising, Natalie.

Natalie Gochnour: Happy to be here, Chris. Thanks for having me.

Chris Nelson: So, the Desert News referred to you recently as the advisor to everyone who needs to make important policy decisions and they also went on to say you have the ear of quote “governors, university presidents, planners, investors and even members of the media trying to predict the future.” That's quite a notable description.

Natalie Gochnour: I tell people if you get up at six in the morning for like 30 years, something good happens.

Chris Nelson: Very nice! I think it's accurate to say that under your leadership, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute has produced the most impactful reports and analysis on what's happening in our state. So, let's start off talking about the institute and its role in shaping policy for Utah.

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, happy to do that, Chris. The institute has been around for about 10 years. We are housed in the Thomas S. Monson Center that's about 400 E South Temple . . .

Chris Nelson: The mansion, as you call it!

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, the mansion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gifted that to the U in 2014 and it's home to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. That was a vision of President Pershing and something that we've continued, of course.

Chris Nelson: So, the institute has produced so many important papers, including in recent months an analysis of the U.S. and Utah economy, a look at the status of our housing and construction markets, a master plan for meeting mental health needs . . .  but let's focus on the New Utah, which identifies six significant transitions underway in the state. Do you want to give us an overview?

Natalie Gochnour: I would love to do that. Can I tell you a little bit more about the institute as well?

Chris Nelson: Absolutely.

Natalie Gochnour: I found, Chris, that in my public policy work that there is no shortage of demand for great information, data. If you think about it, policymakers have really hard jobs and they have to make decisions whether they have data or not, whether they have accurate data or not. And it turns out that the Gardner Institute sits right at that intersection of great research that happens at the university and policymaking. We call it the intersection of academia and action. And so that's really the role of the institute, to take the demographic work and the economic understanding that we have about our state and lay it out there for our decision makers so they can make informed decisions.

Natalie Gochnour is the director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Chris Nelson: So, let's talk about the New Utah report. It identify six significant transitions underway in the state, so do you want to give us an overview of that?

Natalie Gochnour: I do and I'll describe it this way. The Gardner Institute, we have about 32 researchers that spend all day thinking about trends impacting our state, doing population estimates, economic forecasts, research on important public policies. Coming out of the pandemic, it became clear that something was different and we felt that in all sorts of things.

But in Utah, a couple of things we noticed. We became a mid-size state and this is just looking at the 2020 Census and where we rank among states. There's 20 states that have a smaller population than Utah. That's quite a few. That puts us up in the middle category.

Mid-size states, they have different characteristics. One of them is that they can attract more major-league sports franchises. So, we know that we're actively seeking, as a community, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

Mid-size states also have some real challenges, more congestion, in our state air quality becomes a big challenge.

So, we notice these changes, and if I had to characterize them, there's four demographic. Our growth, which made us a mid-size state. Our racial and ethnic diversity, we’ve become very multicultural. About one in four Utahns come from a racial and ethnic minority. It was one in 10 when I started my public policy career. So, to go from one in 10 to one in four.

We're aging, so we have a much older population. That's true everywhere, but it changes the structure of your economy. You consume more health care, you have to change the way you build housing and the way people get around.

And then we have two economic trends. One is we've just had an elite economy and I can give more evidence of that if you're interested.

Chris Nelson: And define elite economy, I know you've got a very specific definition of that.

Natalie Gochnour: Well, we've always outperformed the nation. And when I say elite, I'm thinking like top three over many consecutive years. So top three in job growth. And we have had this decade of really strong employment growth. And even though we had a recession during the pandemic, it wasn't as acute in Utah and we got out of it much more quickly and have maintained a high level now for a good set of time.

So, we have this elite economy. And then the last transition is one that's not very fun to talk about, but we've become unaffordable and specifically in housing and that didn't really start to take form until about 2018, but now we have the eighth most expensive housing market in the country. I never thought I'd say that. That's just a measure of single family median home prices. And when I say eighth, that includes the District of Columbia.

Chris Nelson: Wow.

Natalie Gochnour: So, seven states and then D.C.

Chris Nelson: So great if you own a home already, but not great if you're trying to buy one.

Natalie Gochnour: And a really important point, because people that are already wealthy get wealthier. And then people that are not in the ownership class, if you will, they have to wait longer to be in a position to buy a home and maybe not buy a home. And that's the way that we accumulate the most wealth in this country.

Chris Nelson: Let me ask you about the elite economy because I'm curious, for someone who's maybe from outside of Utah and is moving here and they look at that, what are the factors, I mean the Legislature is in session right now and folks find plenty of reasons to complain, but Utah has been a well-managed state.

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, there's several things to point out, but among the most important is, because of our demographic growth, just your sheer population growth drives economic growth, more consumers. And then we have this terrific attribute of being a very diverse economy, economically diverse. And what that means is we have a lot of industries here.

So, the best way to think of that is think of Nevada, how they have gaming, the gambling industry, and then they have mining, but they've struggled to fill in all the other industries. Same thing in Wyoming, very dependent on oil and gas and coal. In Utah, you can name almost any industry. I'll try a few: defense, agriculture, tech, energy, warehousing, distribution. We do a lot of health care for the surrounding region, education for the surrounding region. These are all really important industries in our state—and tourism. So, during the pandemic tourism really suffered, but we had other industries that did well. And so it's this mix that gives you more stability and more resilience as an economy. Those are just two examples. So that demographic growth and a diverse economy.

Chris Nelson: So, in the introduction, we talked about what the policy institute does is create data and analysis to make difficult decisions. Of those transitions you talked about, where do you think Utah leaders need to be focused? Probably all of them I suspect is the answer.

Natalie Gochnour: No, some of that, but clearly Governor Cox has been very focused on housing. He's put forward a budget that's very, let's say, forward leaning on housing, putting more money into housing grants for new home buyers, housing preservation and a lot of interest in working with local governments to do more permitting of housing. So, we get the supply up that we need.

I will say, though, that there's another transition that I think needs more attention and that is the fact that we're diversifying so rapidly. We are getting more of our growth from the outside than the inside right now. And if you just think about it, we're diversifying racially and ethnically, but we're also diversifying with new groups of Utahns, new Utahns. There are a lot more voices here, Chris. And if I'm a policymaker, I want to listen to all those voices. They have different needs, different perspectives, different life experiences. And s,o I would really encourage, and do this actively, our decision makers to listen more because there's new voices here.

Chris Nelson: How do you connect that to the kind of what I would describe my words, urban/rural divide? Utah is growing, like you said, so quickly, eighth expensive housing market. We’ve also got rural communities, farming, mining. How does this report, how do you bring these two worlds together a little bit for lawmakers?

Natalie Gochnour: It's very true that we have what could be thought of as two Utahs. Now, not all of rural Utah struggles, but a lot of rural Utah does. And a good way for our listeners to think about that is to just think of Eastern Utah. This is, I'll use some county names, Duchesne, Uinta, Grand, San Juan, Carbon, Emory. Maybe just by hearing those names, Chris, you could glean that those were energy counties. A county like Carbon and Emory counties have an ebb and flow that is dependent on the price of oil and price of natural resources. But typically, if I look at a map of unemployment rates or job growth rates, Eastern Utah has some of the biggest struggles in our state. And so those are voices we need to listen to. And interestingly, there's an absolute connection. We get our energy, we light our homes and heat our homes with a lot of the energy that comes from rural Utah. And by the same token, we provide a lot of benefits to them.

Chris Nelson: Alright, let me switch gears a little bit. We've talked about the change the state's going through and a lot of this, I think, you've attributed to hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. And so, a lot of our listeners weren't probably in Utah in 2002. Do you want to talk about what impact those winter games were on the state? And of course then I'll ask you about what do you think the next round potentially of Olympics might mean for us?

Natalie Gochnour: Well, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, they were magical for this state. We dreamed big and we delivered. It's been said that they were among the best Winter Olympics in history just measured by how they played out. I remember, you might remember this Chris, but it snowed the morning of the Opening Ceremony and then it didn't snow again until it was done. And that's exactly what you want because snow removal is very difficult, avalanche is very difficult. So, we had a really great go.

Chris Nelson: Were you in the Governor's office?

Natalie Gochnour: I was very involved. I would say I had the same credentials as the governor, which was a neat way of saying that I got to see a lot of important things. I remember spending time in Athletes' Village here up at the campus. Certainly saw Sarah Hughes compete, that was the Olympic gold medalist. Saw Apollo Anton Ono skate in the short track. So just spent time at Medals Plaza. The ceremonies, it was just, if you don't think about this, there were, I think the number is 1.2 billion people watched the opening ceremony, Rice-Eccles Stadium, 1.2 billion people.

Chris Nelson: That's “billion” with a “B.”

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, you don't do that very often. And so, what was the impact? Well, certainly there was a lot of economic impact, a lot of money that came into the state to put on the games. A lot of visitors, a lot of federal money came into the state to help with security of infrastructure, a lot of infrastructure and different things.

But I'm the type of economist that sees something very different in the economic impact. I feel like the greatest impact was the confidence we developed as a state that we could do big things and that the world got to see us. And I tell people that the economic impact of the games was bigger in year five than it was in the year of, because it built over time and the tourism data, would suggest that. And so magical, impactful and there's more than a million people in our state that weren't here in 2002 that will now get to see. I think we'll add another 800,000 between now and when we host again, so 1.8 million more people to see the games.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, let's talk about that, 20 years down the road, 2034, is what we're looking at. As significance or was that 2002 a moment in time?

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, if you look at the numbers, it's interesting because we've already built all the facilities, bobsled, luge, speed track, ski jumps. We don't have to build those again. So, the actual economic impact that you measure in numbers, that you quantify, is a little bit smaller even though the games are bigger now with more sports and different things. So that's sort of interesting. But I would also say, again, that the biggest impact will be that we have to get better in every way before you have the eyes of the world on you. And policymakers in the state are actively thinking about in the next 10 years, what can we do to help with our mental health issues, with our air quality issues, with the Great Salt Lake, with all of these challenges that we want to show right for the world. And so, it becomes a powerful motivating force.

Chris Nelson: We talk about growth a lot and I think of my parents, who are in their eighties. I think about some of the neighbors at the University of Utah. And growth is almost a dirty word sometimes. I just want to be back, I want the university to be a size, I want less traffic. What's the positive message out there? And this is for my parents, specifically, because I hear them talk about this all the time. They just want it to be 1970 again.

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, the best way to think of that is think of the alternative. You typically can't stand still and so you decline or you grow. And what we have to do is grow in a managed way, in a smart way. And my experience with our decision makers in the state, they understand that. Look at what they did way back when to invest in Trax and Front Runner. We were ahead of our time. Look at what they've done to keep our traffic flowing, look at what they've done at this campus, look at the facilities that they've invested in here so that our students have this incredible experience. Economies grow because of investment and productivity and our leaders understand that and invest in that. And so the key to growth is to stay ahead of it, not get behind, invest, invest, invest. Take this elite economy and don't squander it. Invest in the future. That's the best advice.

Chris Nelson: That's solid advice. Let's talk about housing a little bit because I think that's kind of a natural link here. So, you mentioned eighth most expensive market, housing prices have increased 46% since January 2020. Other states are facing this, but it impacts first-time home buyers. Solutions to the problem? What do you think?

Natalie Gochnour: Well, that's one of the tricky things is, it's not entirely clear how you do this. It's a hard thing. It's going to take both the private sector and the public sector to get on top of it. The most important thing is we need supply, right? We need more housing units so that we have places for the growth to be. And I would suggest that one of the best things we can do is train the workers to build those homes and to adjust our policies to create more land availability for the market-based zoning. So increased densities is really what I'm saying there, Chris. And then, lastly, we've got to change our behavior. As you know, everybody wants to see higher-density housing, but not next to them. And that's another way of saying that you don't want school teachers and snowplow drivers and first responders living by you, your kids living by you. And so we need to change our behavior. We need to understand that Utah's a mid-sized state with a lot of growth pressures and we're not our grandmother's Utah anymore. We're changing, but we can preserve quality and invest in the future at the same time.

Chris Nelson: And from an optimistic perspective, because you are one of the most optimistic people I know, is that I think a lot of states would love to have these problems.

Natalie Gochnour: Wouldn’t they? Governor Herbert was always fond of saying he'd go to National Governor's Association meetings and they'd say all the states, Utah has them in their rear view, mayors.

Chris Nelson: So, you have advised governors, you've advised cabinet secretaries, you're advising university presidents now. For someone who looks at your career now, maybe thinking about our students who might listen to this, who are studying, what advice do you give our junior, senior students who want to get into public policy or government work? I mean, you've had such an amazing career. When you meet with younger students in their twenties, what advice do you impart to them, career-wise?

Natalie Gochnour: Oh, I always encourage them to move towards energy. Where do they feel energized? And I'm a big believer in just being directionally correct. You don't have to nail it, you don't have to know specifically. You just kind of got to, am I a humanities person or a social science person or a science person? And then kind of get into that field and then explore more and iterate around a directionally correct way that you're feeling energy.

I would also say to people that are interested in public policy among our students is there's incredible demand and need. We have an incredible master's in public policy program here. We hire a lot of graduates from the MPP program. I think degrees in economics, both in the College of Social & Behavioral Science and the David Eccles School of Business, those are terrific degrees for us, for our institute to hire. We hire people who get the demography certificate. We do a lot of demographic research. So, if you like public policy, you can get a job in it.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I've got my own master's in public administration from the U and what I loved about that program was the practicality of it. You've got data, you've got the analysis, but also the work is about improving people's lives.

Natalie Gochnour: Absolutely, yeah. I come from a big family and I sometimes look at what some of my siblings do for a living and they're great and I'm sure they moved towards energy to become what they became. But I'm mindful that in my work I always go home feeling a sense of community and accomplishment from serving your community. You may not make the most money, you may not have the best hours and some different things, but you create impact every day and that's really gratifying.

Chris Nelson: So, bringing it back to campus, one of your titles is you obviously lead the policy institute, you still have a role in the business school, you have a role in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, but you're also a senior advisor to President Randall. And one of the things I know we talk about in Cabinet a lot is the perception of higher education, not only in Utah but nationwide. And the data is alarming. Public opinion around higher ed is as low as I've ever seen it. What do you attribute that to and what can we do to improve that?

Natalie Gochnour: Chris, I'm very fond of the book, “A Time to Build” by Yuval Levin. Yuval writes about institutions, the durable forms of human life. It's the things we do together, associational life. And in it he has chapters on all the different institutions, whether it's Congress, the media, higher ed, the Supreme Court, and he documents that America's losing trust in their institutions, that institutions are in decline. I think that's at the heart of this problem we're having in higher ed. We've lost trust and we need to gain it back.

I think people are dismayed, even though they shouldn't be, because we know that we create great value here at the University of Utah, but they're worried about the cost of higher education and they're worried about whether they have the ability to say what they think in the marketplace of ideas on our campuses.

So, all those things are colliding and creating a lack of trust with our institutions and in this case higher ed. And I guess I would say that our job as higher ed leaders is to listen and then get better and to also inform. Because if you're not spending a lot of time on campuses, maybe you don't understand how they work and the importance of the academy, the importance of research.

I've become fond of saying we didn't get a man on the moon or we didn't map out the human genome, or we didn't get batteries for our electric vehicles without all this research. We forget how much it improves our lives and research universities are that force for our country and for the world. And so, some combination of listening and getting better and informing is what I think is the answer.

Chris Nelson: Utah has such an amazing system of higher ed, it seems so balanced between the research universities, Utah State and here, and our training programs and our trade schools. And everybody has a connection to higher ed in this state. I agree with you. I think it’s a matter of probably activating those audiences a little bit. And one of the things, you and I have both been on these road trips with President Randall, just visiting the state and making sure the University of Utah is present out there.

Natalie Gochnour: Yeah, well, and let's be honest, if all of these institutions of higher learning bring their strengths to the community, that's impact. And in the case of the University of Utah, our strengths are many.

Chris Nelson: Again, I come back to that. I think other leaders, at the meetings I go to, I'm sure the same ones you do nationally, they're like, these are not problems. You guys have a lot of opportunity.

So, Natalie, at a recent chamber meeting, the policy institute, in partnership with the Chamber, released Utah Informed, which during the legislative session is super helpful. Talk about that publication.

Natalie Gochnour: We call it “visual intellection.” Chris, have you ever heard that term, intellection?

Chris Nelson: I have not.

Natalie Gochnour: It's this idea that visually you can tell a story and we curate basically for the past six months, all of the things you need to know to make informed decisions in 2024. And so it's all filled with graphs and quotes and, you know, you can't pick it up without feeling the weight of the future decisions we need to make. And it's under the basic premise that if people are informed, they'll make good decisions. And so Utah Informed, you can see it at And, again, visual intellectual for the things you need to know in 2024 to make informed decisions.

Chris Nelson: Alright, so I will call you “the oracle.” You probably don't like that. But last question, the Utah Legislature is back in session. Talk about the conversations you're having behind the scenes. It is a long 45 days, but what should people be watching?

Natalie Gochnour: Chris, I've become fond of that term, “strategic patience.” And I think that's really important with legislative sessions. It's a messy process. It's a complicated process. We think 45 days so it's short, but it's actually a long process. It's circuitous in a lot of twists and turns. There's a lot of checks and balances. You'll see things you don't like and then things will come around.

In the end, we get a lot of accolades as a state for balancing our budget. As you know, our state has invested a lot in higher education in the past, more so than most states. They're still taking a huge interest in institutions of higher learning. So, I just would encourage people to be patient, strategically patient, and then make sure your voice is heard. You and I were in an event last week where a phone rang while the governor was speaking and he joked with it and he said, “That's me calling. I need you to answer that call and step up and be engaged and be a part of leading this state.” And I've had fun kind of turning that around and saying, “We're calling you, too, so we need them to listen to us as well.” So, some combination of that. I feel very confident that in the end we'll be proud of many of the things that happen in the legislative session and the things that don't turn out? There's interim for the next nine months.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, your optimism is infectious and it is wonderful, and I just enjoy working with you. So, thanks for joining us on U Rising. We'll have you back.

Natalie Gochnour: Thanks, Chris, pleasure working with you as well.

Chris Nelson: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. You'll find links to the reports we've talked about today in the transcript online at slash u-rising.

Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I hope you'll tune in next time. I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.