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Downtown Provo is pictured on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News, File

Provo-Orem named America's 'best-performing city' in economic ranking; more Utah cities make top 10

By Graham Dudley, | Updated - Feb. 19, 2021 at 10:07 a.m. | Posted - Feb. 18, 2021 at 9:12 p.m.

PROVO — The Provo-Orem area has the best regional economy in America, according to rankings released this week by the Milken Institute, and other Utah cities aren't far behind.

Provo took the top spot away from San Francisco, which fell out of the top 10 in the nonprofit think tank's annual rankings. Salt Lake City checked in at No. 4 on the list, and Ogden jumped all the way from No. 22 last year to No. 9 for 2021.

And that's just on the "large cities" list. Utah also fared well on the small cities index, placing both Logan and St. George inside the top five. Idaho Falls took the top spot among small cities.

The Milken Institute says its annual rankings are based on "an outcomes-based set of metrics" that include job creation, wage gains and growth in "high-tech GDP."

"The top-performing metros have cohesive strategies allowing them to weather economic storms and leverage their assets more effectively," it said. Those cities were mostly clustered in the Intermountain West and South, the Milken Institute observed, where affordable housing and broadband access met wage and job growth.

Phil Dean, the public finance senior research fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said the Milken results track well with what he's observing about the Utah economy. "We have been the strongest state, in terms of economic recovery, since the pandemic," Dean said. "We're actually back to overall job growth, as of December, in the state."

Dean said there are "a number of factors" that have aided Utah's tech industry on metrics like the Milken Institute's. Many of Utah's major tech companies are based in Utah County, including Vivint Smart Home, Qualtrics and Pluralsight.

In an emailed statement, Vivint senior vice president of human resources Starr Fowler said Utah has become a go-to destination for professionals.

"Utah is an entrepreneurial state and people here are sincerely invested in growing the Silicon Slopes and making the state a great place for tech," Fowler said. "Historically, people might have worked along the Wasatch Front as just a stop on their career path before going to the east or west coast. Today there are enough large companies and budding startups that you can really build a career here, along with enjoying a great quality of life. For me, it's an incredible place to raise my family in a beautiful setting with all my favorite outdoor activities just minutes away."

Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin said the world is "just noticing something we've known for a long time, that Utah has been a phenomenal place to build a business and to grow.

"Talent follows growth and growth follows talent, and we've got both in Utah right now," Serafin said in a statement. "The combination of job growth and opportunity, affordable housing, and world-class amenities mean that people want to come here. Utah is going to rank high on lists like this for years to come. Qualtrics has been based in Utah from the start and now we're a destination company in a destination location, that's certainly going to benefit us into the future."

Having two major universities nearby helps, Dean said, as does Utah's business-friendly climate.

"We encourage business creation and growth here," Dean said, "and that's not necessarily the case everywhere else." He said Utah needs to continue those policies, and make sure its workforce is well-educated, to maintain its advantages moving forward.

Dean also said housing affordability, or lack thereof, is "a risk" that Utah faces in the future. "I think that's something that we need to keep an eye on as we move forward," he said. And he added that Utah shouldn't forget about people and industries that are struggling, despite strong overall numbers and plaudits from organizations like the Milken Institute.

"I think it's important that, even with our successes, we look out for those who aren't doing quite as well."

The 2021 top 10 large metros list is led by Provo-Orem, followed by Palm Bay, Florida; Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City; Raleigh, North Carolina; Boise; Phoenix; Nashville, Tennessee; Ogden-Clearfield; and Huntsville, Alabama.

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