SALT LAKE CITY — "I believe firmly that this policy institute can make life better for our state and for our children."
Those words came from prominent businessman and community leader Kem Gardner as he spoke to more than 100 local, state and national leaders Wednesday at the state Capitol to celebrate the launch of a new University of Utah institute formed to drive better-informed public policy solutions.
Those who attended included former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sen. Orrin Hatch, state legislators, local mayors, and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute — named after Gardner as its top donor — will work with the university's Center for Public Policy and Administration and Bureau of Economic and Business Research, as well as partner with the Hinckley Institute of Politics to help make informed decisions to strengthen Utah's economy.
"We're here to unite behind a goal of creating a data-driven, independent, influential and trusted public policy institute that will help keep Utah beautiful and prosperous," said Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the U.'s David Eccles School of Business, who was chosen as the new institute's director.
"The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute will shed light and open doors on many of the most important issues facing our community," she said.
The institute will help elected officials, business and community leaders make informed decisions by developing economic, demographic and public policy data, said U. President David Pershing.
That will include preparing state population projections; analyzing economic trends; researching current public policy topics such as education, taxes and economic development; and conducting survey research on public issues.
"We see that as an opportunity to give back to our community, and that's an important part of what your university should be doing," Pershing said.
While the Hinkley Institute's focus is on politics and debate, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute will be nonpartisan and focus only on public policy through research and data to help leaders "navigate" through complex issues, Gochnour said.
The new institute will be located in the restored Wall Mansion on South Temple. The mansion, gifted to the university last year by the LDS Church, is undergoing a $9 million restoration.
Gochnour said the mansion will open and begin housing the new institute in May 2016.
Gochnour, Pershing and others who spoke — including Romney, Hatch, Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson, and Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies — thanked Gardner and the LDS Church for their contributions to the institute.
We're here to unite behind a goal of creating a data-driven, independent, influential and trusted public policy institute that will help keep Utah beautiful and prosperous.
–Natalie Gochnour, David Eccles School of Business
"This is a terrific idea, a terrific thing," Hatch said. "God bless this entity because it's going to be a great one."
Romney and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt have agreed to serve as conveners of the institute to draw a think tank of prominent people throughout the U.S. to discuss the nation's most prominent and pressing issues, including the environment, poverty, homelessness, health care and education. They will host an annual summit at the Wall Mansion when its restoration is complete.
"There are some things that will come from this institute that will change other states," Romney said. "I'm happy to be a part of this. … It will make a difference."
Romney said Utah could gain a better handle on its pollution issues, as well as better its education system.
Miller and Anderson will lead an advisory board to provide strategic direction to the institute. Miller said the institute will help bring forth new ideas to help solve problems by allowing young leaders to find their place in their community.
"Utah is a wonderful place to work and live, but there are also tremendous needs here," she said, speaking of people who struggle with homelessness or low-income jobs, and children who don't get the education they need to succeed.
"Sometimes I see elected officials who get caught up in ideological extremes, and they spend too little time fighting controversy and solving problems," Miller said. "So it's my great hope that the policy institute will help with the research to address complex issues.
"We need this trusted think tank and this policy institute to help guide the way," she continued. "I know when you give Utah people good data and accurate information, they do the right thing."
Gochnour said the institute will complete several notable research projects in the coming year. She said those projects will include a 2016 election analysis of the three issues that most impact Utah — education, infrastructure and tax policy — an investigation of the state's defense industry, an analysis of Utah housing prices, and research on the state's changing demographics.
"I can think of no better way to describe this to you than to imagine our state 50 years from now," Gochnour said. "Most of us will no longer be here, but our (children) will live on. What kind of Utah do they live in?"
Gochnour said she envisions a state with high-quality jobs, the best educational system in the world, and top-notch health care.
"I want the policy institute to engage local, national and international leaders … as well as do our part to build a better world," she said. "And the great thing is, I actually think it can happen."