Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Paul H. Thompson
You Can Get There From Here—A Conversation with Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Paul H. Thompson is currently President of Weber State University and serves on the Executive Committee for the Ogden/Weber Chamber of Commerce and on the board of the Coalition for Utah's Future. A successful teacher, consultant, university administrator and author, he holds a doctorate in Business Administration from Harvard University. His most recent book (with Gene Dalton) is Novations: Strategies for Career Management.
Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. is currently Vice Chairman of the Board of Huntsman Corporation and President/CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. He serves as Chair of Envision Utah, a public/private partnership charged with developing growth options for Utah's future. He was born in Palo Alto, California, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. His public service has included assignments as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Singapore and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Let's talk about Envision Utah. In recent years, there has been a lot of interest in growth—particularly population and economic growth. Most people seem to like growth, especially the latter, but it presents some challenges. I was reading an article in the Salt Lake Tribune this morning that told how "Sprawl Threatens Colorado's Image," and how they are searching for ways to slow growth. Obviously Utah is not the only state worried about what's happening.
You've been serving as the chair of Envision Utah for six months—tell us about that, and why did you take the job?
Well, I took the job because the Governor extended great pressure, but most important I took it because I thought we needed to bring the issue of growth down to the least common denominator—quality of life. Whatever we can do as a business community, an academic community, a not-for-profit community—whatever we can do to ensure that Utah continues to have a good quality of life, however we define it, is worth doing. Quality of life has always been our center piece in this state. People love it here.
We are all immigrants to this state. Many of us came from California or from the East Coast, but now we call Utah home. A lot of the people here got tired of Boston, New York, Washington, and California with all those cities have to offer, and they came here. So for me quality of life is central, and Envision Utah when distilled down to the least common denominator is about protecting and preserving our quality of life.
Can you protect and preserve the quality of life when there isn't a concensus about what that means?
Well, you can't centrally plan, you can't dictate, you can't do things that we've seen a lot of other countries and communities do—in some cases with disastrous results. I could point you to terrible city development in Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union and in China. I spent a good part of last summer visiting some of the most populous cities in the world—Shanghai and Beijing, each with nearly 20 million people, Bombay and Delhi, and Jakarta, Bangkok which have 15 to 20 million, and all are centrally planned. Obviously central planning doesn't guarantee you will get where you need to be in terms of quality of like and liveable communities.
What we can do is make the democratic process work for us, and one way to do that is to educate, to debate, to put forward to the best of our ability, the facts. In this case the facts are pretty compelling. We have a lot of people moving into Utah and only limited land on which to expand. Our population today is just over 2 million people and it will be 3 to 3½ million by the year 2015. If we extrapolate that out to the year 2040 or 2045—although it's tough to project when we get that far out—we're looking at a population of 6 or 7 million people. In other words, in 15 years we could see a city the size of San Diego along the Wasatch Front. In 40 years or 45 years we could see a city the size of Philadelphia.
If you think of that in generational terms, that means my kids will go out into the work force not in the Salt Lake City we used to know but in a city the size San Diego with all of its challenges. And their kids—my grandkids, and I hope I'm around to see them—will be going out into a city the size of Philadelphia. I've lived in Philadelphia, and it has its challenges. So getting the democratic system to work, debating the issues, building a consensus, putting forward the facts so citizens can judge for themselves and then influencing public policy—that's what we are trying to do at Envision Utah.
It sounds like we are facing tremendous challenges in sprawl, traffic congestion, the potential for crime, pollution and more. From what I've seen of our capacity to handle the single issue of traffic, I'm not too sanguine about the future. You've talked about the mission of Envision Utah. If you had to give yourself a report card, how would you evaluate the things you've done? Where are you right now compared to where you might like to be?
Remember, Envision Utah has been up and running for 2½ years. What do we have to show for our efforts? I suggest the following:
1. We've raised the awareness of growth and its corresponding issues. Growth hadn't been talked about much; maybe it didn't need to be talked about before, but we have encouraged the conversation.
2. We have had an ongoing dialogue with citizens in the state through town meetings and polling. We have taken what we have heard from over 20,000 people and we have incorporated their thoughts into a Quality Growth Strategy that defines fundamental growth principles to be used moving forward. We have made these strategy statements available to local communities and hope they will use them. The Quality Growth Strategy represents a consensus of what the citizens of the state think is important when it comes to growth.
3. We have become a repository. Utah didn't have a single source for growth information before. The Governor's Office of Budget had some data on demographic trends, but there wasn't a lot of detail on the impacts of growth. Nor did we have information about what other people in the country were doing, what works and what doesn't. Envision Utah has pulled together that kind of material along with direct access to experts in the field.
These are three areas where I think Envision Utah has excelled, and where we probably would get a passing grade.
Are there areas where you've failed?
I'll let you know in 20 years when our results can be judged.
You've talked about building a consensus with citizens of the state. I read recently in the media that mayors and city councils are a bit skeptical about what you have been doing. Do you get that same sense from mayors and local governments?
There is some skepticism and concern. I talked with the mayor of Roy this morning, and found some misunderstanding regarding what our ultimate aspirations are. It's not surprising that local governments and communities are concerned. They are closer to the problem than almost anyone else, and they also know that a one-size-fits-all state mandate for growth won't work.
When I took this position six month ago, I heard that some people were wary, and I thought, my goodness, if I were sitting out there I'd feel the same way. Every community in the state is different and unique and colorful for reasons we are all familiar with. They all have different characteristics; they've had different migration patterns of people coming from the early days until now. The Swiss settled here, the British settled there, the Swedish in another place. Today these traditions live on colorfully, and the last thing anyone wants to do is impose something on these wonderful communities that would take away the color, character and culture they enjoy.
I've heard their arguments and concerns, and I agree with what they were saying. A major part of what I do is to meet with as many of people as possible on their turf to describe what we are not. I think by describing what we are not helps them understand what we are. And I've said repeatedly that Envision Utah does not intend to force any kind of state mandate on anyone. We don't want to be coercive. We do not favor a one-size-fits-all growth policy, with one exception. We do want everyone to take a step back, reflect on the long-term implications of growth nd the questions it raises. When they have done that, Envision Utah will be available with resources to help communities begin to work through the growth-planning process more intelligently. We want to make the state better armed with information, better armed with access to professionals, in order to reach better solutions to the problem. The more that message gets out, the more I think we'll be successful at bringing people onboard.
You talk about non-coercive strategies to bring about change, but I've also heard or read that you want to use "incentive-based" options that will be administered locally. What do you mean by incentive-based options?
Many of the hindrances to quality growth, originate in local communities and can appear in the form of outdated zoning plans or economic disincentives. These are things we want to look at carefully, or help communities look at carefully. Let me give you an example, most communities have active disincentives when it comes to the protection of open space. Yet almost everyone living in the community values open space. As a result, in a lot of our communities we are not developing in areas where we should, and we are building developments in places where we shouldn't if we want to maintain the kind of open feeling that most of us think is a basic part of living in the West.
Changing the way we do things won't be easy. Solutions will have to take place at the local level where there are a lot of different people in control. Each city council maintains their own zoning ordinances (some of which have been on the books for a very long time), and in some cases, where state highways or wetlands are involved, local ordinances are also affected by State and Federal regulations. So one of the incentives we can offer is showing how to cut some of the red-tape a little more easily, without encountering onerous regulations as a hindrance at every turn.
I had a conversation this morning with one of the candidates for mayor of Ogden, and he pointed out that Ogden has stayed the same size for many many years. The population hasn't change from 64- 65,000, but parts of the city have changed radically. Look at the downtown area. He would like to be able to redevelop some of that land and provide economic incentives for people to get in and build the right kind of development, but we can't because zoning ordinance are standing in the way. Somebody needs to review those and create incentives and maybe change the laws that will allow the free market to work its magic as it has in many other cities around the country.
There are a lot challenges—reconstructing existing urban space, maintaining open space, protecting agricultural land. I drive through Davis county several times a week and I see a tremendous number of houses being built on what used to be farmland. A lot of open land seem to be disappearing quickly. Will we be able to preserve open spaces?
Open space is popular in Utah. Our polls show that over 80 percent of the people favor "open space." The same polls show that 80 percent of the population feels very strongly about "private property rights." And not surprisingly, one person's interest in open space is often in conflict with another person's interest in building houses on his private land.
But there is no question that people feel strongly about preserving open space and leaving a legacy, because they have enjoyed it during their generation. Utah has a western, outdoor culture that would be incomplete without a sense of openness. And preserving space is going to be key in all our counties and cities.
So how do you do it?
You begin by putting a circle around those spaces you want to preserve and getting as much support for that as you can. Take Davis county again for example. Most of their developable land will be built up early in the next century, and then what do they do? We can only preserve open space once. If we don't plan appropriately, in the next 20 years, our children will find that they've been cut short, and the space we all value will have been filled with various kinds of development. At that point, there won't be much we can do to reverse that process.
Is any one doing a good job of space planning in Utah?
I think some are. There are at least ten communities along the Wasatch Front that are making some effort to preserve open space. Some are doing a better job than others, but I think the warning has been sounded. I think people are beginning to have a sense of what our state could look like in 20 years if we focus on quality growth principles.
Presumably, a lot of development is driven by population growth. Utah has a high birth rate, and maybe I'm not the right person to ask this questions because I have six children, but can we continue to have a high birth rate and preserve a good quality of life here?
I think we can. We have had a long and proud history of large families but, our birth rate is changing. Two generations ago it was much higher than it is today. The present rate is about 2.5 - 3 kids per family. That's higher than the national average, but I think we are coming into sort of a symmetry with national trends. Utah is not going to be too far away from what the nation is doing in the next 20 years. So when we talk about large families, we need to keep a national perspective.
Beyond numbers, the nature of our families affects planning, too. I think we have to be smart enough to know that we will need different types of housing to accommodate changes in family types. And we probably haven't done a great job of this in the state. We have a tradition of large, single-house lots as a reflection of our western heritage and culture—that's why many people move here. But large, single-house lots don't meet the needs of everyone. As people age, they want to move off hard-to-maintain property, to downsize, to move into condominiums or apartments. At the same time, we've got newly-married folks with their first or second job who can't afford large homes, and they want housing that matches their economic capacity. Right now, we don't have enough diverse housing to accommodate our different needs.
Related, too is the Utah tradition of having our families live close by—first, second, and third generations—not in the same neighborhood, necessarily, but in the same town or county. That's a difficult thing to do. Salt Lake County housing prices are quite high now, and there is not much in the way of housing to accommodate those who are early or late in their careers who might want to live close to their families.
I think I hear you saying that the desire to live close to family is going to bring more diversity in housing as we move into the next century.
I think so. I hope so.
If people in Utah have a history of consuming a lot of land resources. How do we get them to say I'm willing to live in a third floor apartment? Do you really think we're ready to make that transition?
We will make it gradually. We've done a housing study that tries to account for needs in the year 2020 in the ten-county Wasatch Front area. Currently, 75 percent of the homes are single lot dwellings. By 2020, we think that percentage will drop to 60 plus percent, and the void will be filled by diverse housing—retirement housing, early career housing, affordable housing, etc.
Let's shift from housing diversity, and talk about housing economics. I am concerned that wages in Utah are low—I think they are only 80 percent of the national average. As a result, a lot of people have a hard time affording decent housing here, and as you have noted the cost of housing seems to be growing steadily. In the newspaper recently, Utah County and Weber County were
The cost of housing ebbs and flows. Right now it is high, but I'm not sure it's going to stay that way too long, in fact I talked to a realtor yesterday (a very large realtor in town) who tells me that she has more homes on the market now than at any time in the last several years. As we encounter a surplus of homes on the market, prices are probably going to head back down. And I think this may be the harbinger of larger economic trends that might suggest the national economy going into the next century is not going to be as strong or robust as it has been the last few years. It's probably easier to predict the housing market than it is the general economy, but the two are related.
I've been looking across the valley in Salt Lake recently, and I see air pollution that's pretty persistent, something that wasn't here forty years ago when I was a student at the University of Utah. What are we able to do about improving the quality of air along the Wasatch Front?
There are things that can be done. Los Angeles has done it. Automobiles are getting cleaner. The gas that we are burning is getting better. Much of the gas has oxygenation in it today, in the form of Methyl TertiaryButyl Ether (MtBE) or ETPE which is an ethanol based gasoline additive, which enhances the performance of the car and also burns cleaner. Those are two very interesting and encouraging trends. Better cars with cleaner engines, and gas that is cleaner burning. So there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to comply with the clean air act which is targeted at making communities look better and smell better and feel better. If Los Angeles can do it I'm convinced anyone can do it.
Now we do have a bizarre quirk of geography to deal with here—this lovely basin surrounded by high mountains. In some ways, Salt Lake is like a part of Mongolia I've visited—what should have been an attractive and clean valley was home to a large Russian power plant that continually belched smoke into the air. The result was awful, constant haze. Salt Lake has a similar basin that can trap air during certain seasons and there is not much we can do.
You raise some interesting points. Let's assume that MTBE and other additives help gasoline burn cleaner, but they also introduce other potential pollutants into the environment. I know that the EPA is already concerned about what happens if MtBE is spilled and finds its way into drinking water. I've also read recently that the population of automobiles is increasing far faster than the human population, which suggests that even if we have better cars and alternative fuels, we may still overwhelm the system. All which leads me to another question, can we really clean up the air without getting a good share of people out of their cars?
If we were to draw a straight line graph and say that we were going to allow people to drive where ever they want, and that road construction and development will occur as it's scheduled to occur in the next 10 to 20 years, I think the air would improve, even with an increase in automobile usages simply because the cars are getting better and the gas is getting cleaner. But you're right, in the end, when we live in the compact community we do along the Wasatch Front, there are some boundaries that you can't do anything about, and they add to the problem. We have mountain ranges, a large lake, Federal land that we can't expand on, and in the long term, we are going have to do something about encouraging walkable communities. Instead of two, three or even four cars in a garage, we will have to have communities where people can walk or consider other forms of transporation.
I've discovered a lot of people have returned to neighborhoods in this town that were built 50 or 60 years ago. Why? I think in part it's because those are walkable neighborhoods that were attractively done in the first place. And people like it, they like the neighborly feel of being in a walkable community.
I like the idea of walkability, but I suspect I am in the minority. Much of the commercial and housing development that I see seems to assume continued use of individual automobiles. If Envision Utah is democratic and non-dictatorial, without somehow letting the air out of all of our tires, how do you encourage walkability.
It's a challenge. In the United States we don't charge a lot for gasoline compared to other developed countries, because we like to drive…it's freedom, especially in the West. In Europe, they charge $3 to $4 a gallon and people drive cars that don't burn as much gas and they don't drive as far. Are we going to have to charge a higher tax on gasoline? That's an option, but I hope it won't be used. Mobility is an aspect of American freedom that people hold dear—the ability to get into a car and go wherever you want, and to do it on the cheap. People in other countries pay more for gasoline and sometimes have to get permission to go from one place to another. That's not the way it's done here, and I don't think our philosophy is ever going to change.
I think we can encourage more walking by developing communities that are more community friendly. An area becomes walkable when there are destinations of interest that are close enough to home.
When I was growing up, Ogden's Washington Boulevard was the main street in town and it was a very nice street, with a lot of stores. Now many of the stores are gone—relocated to malls in Riverdale or just gone. And people don't like to walk downtown because they don't think it's safe.
So one step to getting a walkable community in Ogden is to deal with the reality or perception of crime that makes an area unsafe. How do you do it? You elect Rudy Giuliani Mayor is what you do. I say that with some tongue in cheek, but here is somebody who has brought about remarkable change in what was once one of the most crime infested cities in the country, maybe even the world—there are probably some worse, I understand that Johannesburg is pretty bad these days. Giuliani did it by adopting a broken windows policy which is to say that the authorities take after any criminal even those that break a window, and the criminals are punished. He'll prosecute them. Before Giuliani was mayor, the city didn't pay attention to low level crime, they only pursued serious criminals.
Some people say Giuliani's take a gestapo-like approach to law and order.
He has been harsh, and I don't know if he has gone too far or not. The crime statistics have gone way down in his favor. And people and businesses are going back to New York City. I know because I fly there once a month, and I've seen it change like no other city in the world that I've visited. And there are other cities who are using variations of the Giuliani model that are also coming back, and they are redeveloping their downtown areas and making them safer and more attractive to shoppers and to walkers and those seeking entertainment. I think that's a good thing. Showing that it is possible to change a city center which should always be the economic and cultural heart of any community.
We have economic activity scattered all along the Wasatch Front—we have pockets of economic activity everywhere, but I think the the centerpiece of any city needs to be the downtown area. And if we can't create that focus of economic activity, making it attractive for consumers as a destination, then down towns will die and become a locus for crime and bad behavior.
Can you be more specific?
The Gateway Project in Salt Lake is very positive. The Boyer Company is taking the old railroad stockyards and some abandoned warehouses—an area that prudent people avoided because it was scarred by drug activity and crime—and they're proposing to develop attractive shopping areas, walking areas, and an entertainment district that will inject new life into that part of town. It is a great project, and it will be walkable by design.
Before you convert me completely to walking, let's talk about the Legacy Highway. You've said that people have a right to be out in their cars, but some of our citizens are saying that this particular road is going to destroy wetlands. I happen to think the Legacy Highway is needed, partly because I spend so much time driving through Davis County. How do we resolve the conflicts presented when two strong, perhaps equally valid public needs compete?
Well, I'm not going to comment on whether the Legacy Highway should be built or not. Envision Utah is not taking a position one way or the other.
But it seems to me that that this is typical of the kind of confrontation that will inevitably arises when there are different visions of societal need. Improved highways are critical for continued economic progress and for the kind of transportation freedom we've been talking about. But not everyone sees the problem the same way. Some think we would be better off to car pool, to drive less, and to preserve and improve the environment for our children. In some ways, this highway is just a prototype of the kinds of problems we will encounter as any proposal for change are made when no consensus has been identified. And to me, that raises the question of how you proceed when there are deep felt differences.
Well, I'm an optimist. Some people see compromise as failure, but I think there is also hope in compromise. If you're going to develop a new highway, which will encroach on areas that people think are special for whatever reasons, then I think the development community probably has to give way and protect some of the land. But there has to be good faith on both sides, and there has to be some negotiation and give and take, and eventually some compromise. The alternative to compromise is stalemate, and no one gets anything done when you're stalemated.
You are an optimist, and I hope you're right. As you have watched the negotiation process as it relates to public environmental issues in Utah, do you have a sense of whether we are more cooperative or more confrontational than other parts of the country?
I think we are learning to cooperate better. Envision Utah has many voices at its table, that's one of the things that makes us different. We are not only public and private, but we invite all opinions to the table—we have developers and environmentalists, bankers and community leaders, elected and appointed government officials. And I have found a level of cooperation that I did not think existed before. At least the people who are involved with the Envision Utah movement want to see good things happen, and they are willing to give and take to accomplish that end. I won't go into specifics, but there was an example of cooperation a weekend ago, between one environmental group that is part of Envision Utah and a group of developers. The issue involved specific wording but the words were critical. We got going on the problem, and came up with compromise language that pleased both sides, without losing a thing.
It sounds as if you are saying that compromise can sometimes lead to discovery of new alternatives.
Yes, but in any case, healthy compromise is necessary to keeping disparate groups moving in similar directions. I don't claim it's easy, but where there are common problems there is almost always a common interest in solving them. The trick then is to get above short-term petty squabbling and look at the larger issues. We are trying to look longer term—20 to 40 years—and that long-term focus tends to help everybody rise to the occasion.
Considering broad trends, I listened to Phil Burgess a couple of weeks ago. He is the president for the Center for the New West. He said that the Internet is the most important development in the world in the last 500 years. Is it possible that the Internet is going to minimize the problems of traffic and development because people will work at home and shop on the Internet? Perhaps we can ignore Envision Utah because the Internet will make all our problems go away.
I don't buy that at all. I live in the real world. We use the Internet, but we don't do much business on it, and I don't think we are going to do much, even 20 years from now. We will be selling more products, probably, over the Internet, but a lot of the critical parts of business are done, at least in our world and I think most other industries, person-to-person. And I'm not sure that the computer is ever going to take the place of human-to-human contact. It would be nice to think that we can do more telecommuting, and we are making that one of our quality growth principles, but I guess I'm a little less sanguine because we have tried telecommuting in our business and it works, but only in limited areas. In most cases, if you're not at the headquarters or the regional office where corporate culture is built, you can't get the job done. The Internet will help facilitate commerce, there is no doubt about that, but I don't think it will never take the place of person-to-person contact.
And if I shop on the Internet, UPS is still going to be needed to bring it to my door.
In spite of the clever television ads that we've seen.
You've had a lot of international experience. What does Utah need to do to stay competitive in a global economy?
We need to be less insular. We have a lot of internationally focused people in the state, but sometimes they lack the willingness to inject themselves into the real world where business is done. By that, I mean they're not willing to take themselves out of this community and enter another—adopting needed business practices even though they may be different from what they're used to at home. Too many are not willing to leave behind the warmth and comfort of the community in which they grew up to embrace something completely different. Thats what's needed today to be competitive internationally. And I'm not sure that we are doing enough of it.
That's curious, because thanks to the Mormon Church, Utah probably sends more of its young people out into foreign countries than any other state in the Union.
But you're saying they don't want to go back?
Most want to return to Utah and live here for the rest of their lives. And I would guess 90 percent lose their language skills fairly quickly. That's not good if you're going to be competitive globally—you have to be on the cutting edge of business practices internationally, and understand the culture, economics and politics of the rest of the world. It does no good if you're exposed for a couple of years and then return to insularity.
And the limited exposure in most cases is unrelated to business. I suspect that most Mormon missionaries learn the language of religion but don't understand the language of business, and they don't how foreign businesses operate. My son just came back from Taiwan two months ago, he knows a lot about the church there, he almost nothing about business. So is there any way we as a community can do it better from a business point of view?
That's a good question and I've though about it a lot, because I'm a returned Mormon missionary. And I came back thinking that I understood Taiwan and the heart and soul of the Chinese people, only to find that when I tried to apply that to the business world I had a lot to learn. I've had to work for years to learn the realities of doing business in other lands and other cultures. And it's just not a given that someone who spends a couple of years overseas doing missionary work is going to be able to translate that experience instantaneously into successful business practice. Missionary work is a start, it's a very important start, but if you don't pick up from there and extend your vocabulary, broaden your horizons and interact with new groups of people, then it's not going to do you much good. So yes it's true, we have a head start in this state, but I'm concerned that not enough people take advantage of their experiences and take them to the next level of involvement. What do we need to do as a community? That's another good question, and I don't have an answer.
I have thought that one of the reasons the Salt Lake Olympic Committee got into trouble, and I don't want to talk about your relationship to the Olympic Committee, but the Committee had problems, it seems to me, because they didn't know how to respond to some of the different practice and the values associated with doing business internationally. Would you agree with that interpretation?
I think that's a kind interpretation, but essentially correct.
Then the question is not just how do you get people to live in Shanghai or Bosnia, but how do you get them to accept or at least work with the value systems there.
You can appreciate the value system of another country, but you don't have to embrace it. In fact, they respect the way U.S. companies do business, and they know that we can't engage in pay-offs, it's against the foreign corrupt practices act—it's illegal. All the Olympic Committee needed to do was say, we don't do business that way, thank you very much, and we can show our appreciation another way. But it's true, in China, to use one example, they call it an "inconvenience payment" which mean's I'm inconveniencing you to take my investment application from the bottom of the stack on the Minister of Economic Affairs desk, and place it on the top of the pile so that it will get his immediate attention. And, I'm going to pay you something for inconveniencing you to do that—that's part of their culture. It's not seen there as anything nefarious, it's not immoral, it's just a fact of life.
But it's frowned on by the foreign corrupt practices act.
It is. We can't do those kinds of things, and they respect that. We've encounter it repeatedly in foreign countries. You just need to say what you can and cannot do and they respect that, and then you go right on doing your business. True, you might find yourself bidding for a contract against the French who make inconvenience payments, and they win once in a while. There's not much you can do about that, unless you want to engage in unethical business practices. But it's illegal, and the important thing is you don't need to do it to win.
I think the Olympic Committee found themselves a little bit short in terms of their knowledge and understanding of how the international community works, and probably wanted to show their appreciation in ways that had been done before and are done routinely overseas but are frowned upon here in this country where we have a very distinct set of morals that guides our business practices. Our practices are really quite unique and completely western, and they are not embraced by anybody else outside of America.
So how do we compete in the global economy without breaking the law?
By using what we do best, our indigenous advantages. We have technology that is second to none—and that's across the board in almost all companies. We are the technological leaders in the world and everybody wants our technology, and you don't need to engage in unacceptable practices to be competitive. And it's not just our hard technology that is a selling point, it's our business management practices that everybody wants to know about. So we are selling hard and soft technology—soft technology being how we manage corporations, how we motivate and how we create a corporate culture. This is all of tremendous interest to foreign corporations.
Huntsman Corporation is one of the largest chemical companies in the world and growing. Chemical companies haven't always had the best reputation when it comes to preserving the environment. Do you feel any pressure or conflict around that, where people say you're an executive in a chemical company and yet you're worrying about growth and Envision Utah. Is that a conflict?
When people ask me about Huntsman's commitment to the environment, I say it's second to none—the health and safety of our employees and our commitment to the environment is the foremost part of our business. Then I say, point me to the examples in our industry where we are doing it wrong, and they can't. Yes, I know there have been past bad chemicals—Agent Orange and the mess at Love Canal. They were truly bad and left a terrible legacy, and a lot of companies are now having to spend a lot of money to clean things up. But most if not all chemical companies today are in compliance with rules and regulations, and in fact they are going overboard to spend the capital needed to run their plants efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way.
It may be a generational thing, because I think most people who are part of my generation are environmentalists. We want to do the right thing; we don't want to pollute the earth or leave behind something that's going to plague our children or grandchildren. In earlier economic development people weren't focused on the impact that chemical processes had on the environment, and they left behind some pretty bad things. Today we are doing our best to be on the cutting edge environmentally and in terms of the health and safety of our employees.
You have bought a lot of other companies. Do you ever find yourself in the situation where a newly acquired plant isn't environmentally safe.
We do a careful plant audit prior to any acquisition. If there are problems or if there is anything in the soil that we don't want to accept, then we don't buy the business or we require them to pay for cleaning it up before we take it over. I know it may sound self-serving, but I think the chemical business is misunderstood in some segments of the population. Too many people focus only on a few harsh uses of chemicals. We're a much larger industry than that. Look at the shoes your wearing—we're the second largest producers in the world of polyurethane which is on the bottom of almost every shoe manufactured. We make the fabrics in your clothing, we make the plastics in your kitchen or your TV. We make computer parts. You will go home in your car riding on seat cushions we've made. We make the tires, the bumpers and the dash board. And when you get home, your house insulation was made by us, and the doors, windows and shingles— all made by us. It's an ubiquitous set of products that you just can't get around. You can say that we're a heavy industry, and in the old days it was a dirty industry, but most of that has changed.
I know you are describing your company, but I saw a feature recently about the potential breakdown of nuclear reactors in Russia because they are being neglected. Are international chemical companies operated at a high standard, or has the U.S. pushed its dirtiest processes into developing countries overseas and in South America?
There are problems in foreign countries that have not been a totally solved. But I think they are working on it. For example, in Taiwan, they have created their own environmental regulatory program modeled very closely on the EPA with the same kind of directives, rules and regulations. Thailand is doing the same thing. A lot of countries are forcing their heavy manufacturers to clean up their act. They're being forced into it, in part, because of a lot their foreign investments come from the United States. We only know how to manufacture a certain way based upon a certain standard, and when we invest in these countries, when we operate there, we are not going to operate any less efficiently there than we do here.
I was in Dresden in Eastern Germany, ten years ago, and Eastern Germany had not shown much care for the environment. I assume that's true in all of the Eastern Block. Russia had much the same attitude. I've seen some pretty dreary eco-sites in Russia. I'm not being critical, because there's evidence that they tried to put safeguards in place, but it wasn't done right and the results were disastrous. Just like some things in this country turned out poorly. But the effort to do it right is growing.
That's part of the reason I'm optimistic, because I think there is genuine interest in learning from past, disastrous mistakes and getting it right this time. The younger generation of business leaders, here and abroad, have a community consciousness that includes the environment in a way that older leaders sometimes didn't have. We've been raised in a different era. I think it would be very difficult for you to find somebody in my generation, boomer or generation"X" whatever you call it, who is involved in business today who didn't have a real commitment to leaving the earth better than they found it—water, land and air—cleaner than they found it. I think that's a very promising sign as we move into the future.
You almost persuade me. I think I may become a hopeful optimist.
You see, that's how Envision Utah works.
Challenge and Opportunity
The urbanized area of Northern Utah is experiencing tremendous growth. The Greater Wasatch Area (GWA), which stretches from Nephi to Brigham City, and from Kamas to Grantsville, consists of 88 cities and towns, 10 counties, and numerous special service districts. The GWA is currently home to 1.7 million residents, who constitute 80% of the state's population, making Utah the sixth most urban state in the nation. The area's developable private land, which may total as little as 1000 square miles, is surrounded by mountains, lakes, and public lands that form a natural growth boundary, within which nearly 370 square miles of land is currently developed. By 2020 the area will grow to 2.7 million residents, and will reach 5 million by 2050, placing additional demands on the limited supply of private land. While most residents view this growth as positive, they recognize that it can also introduce a number of problems and challenges. For example, these dramatic increases in population and land consumption will have profound impacts on the quality of life and costs of living in the area. Air quality will suffer, new water sources will need to be developed, crowding and congestion will increase, housing costs will increase as land becomes scarce, crime will increase, business and personal costs will increase, and government spending on infrastructure will force some difficult decisions about state and local spending priorities.
Preparing for this growth also presents some unique opportunities. For example, if we were able to reduce the size of average residential lot from 0.35 acre to 0.29 acre, the total land area consumed by the next million people would drop from 325 square miles of new land to 126 square miles, and the amount of agricultural land consumed by this growth could drop from 143 square miles to just 65 square miles. Thus, intensifying land uses through infill in urbanized areas will ease the pressure to develop new lands.
— From the introduction to Envision Utah's "Quality Growth Strategy" November, 1999 shown as areas where the cost of housing is up dramatically. How do we assure that people can continue to afford housing?