Utah’s high-tech corridor experiences growing pains

Abigail Keenan
Sid Krommenhoek is one of six partners at venture capitalist firm Peak’s Ventures. They have invested in some of Utah’s biggest companies such a Weave, Podium and Homie.

See also Venture capitalist optimistic about Utah’s future

The fast-growing cultural and economic hub between Salt Lake City and Provo has attracted national attention to go along with its Bay Area-inspired nickname, Silicon Slopes.

INC. magazine has recently named it the country’s second-best place to start a business, while Forbes has named Provo the top-ranked city for job growth and the second best place to invest in housing. However, with this growth comes employee concerns and city planning challenges.

Silicon Slopes’ high rankings in these national business magazines are based on factors like net business creation, wage growth and job creation. However, since these stats often include the entire area between Salt Lake and Provo, it can be difficult to pinpoint specifically where the most growth or change is occurring.

For instance, there are fast-growing tech hubs in Sugarhouse, just south of downtown Salt Lake; Lehi, 30 miles south of Salt Lake; Lindon, 36 miles south; and in downtown Provo, 45 miles south. All four areas are building new office buildings to house strong hiring for local and national companies like Amazon, Facebook and Snapchat.

Utah’s top ten fastest growing private companies according to Inc. 5000

While these areas compete with each other to land companies and jobs, this broad-based growth across the region has helped increase the visibility and value of the Silicon Slopes name outside the area, which should ensure continued future growth.

As participants in the recent increased growth, local executives can weigh in on the key reasons for this success and the chances of it continuing. Danny Holmoe works for Qualtrics, a local unicorn — a private startup company that is valued at more than $1 billion — that was recently sold to SAP.

“I personally see a lot more growth potential here in Utah. Because Utah is one of the top places to live and the cost of living is lower than Silicon Valley, you are seeing a lot of people without Utah connections moving here for opportunities in tech,” Holmoe said. “The universities also seem to foster a strong entrepreneurial spirit, which leads to graduates starting companies here in Utah.”

Peak Ventures, a local venture capital firm, shares a similar view of the future for the area with some warnings. Partner Sid Krommenhoek said the area is likely to see continued job growth, but that infrastructure will struggle under the load.

“There will be more startup activity fueled by the liquidity in talent and capital from IPOs and acquisitions. That will have a positive impact on job growth, and Utah will increasingly be viewed as a hub for innovation,” Krommenhoek said. “But it will also put pressure on infrastructure — from what we’ve seen on freeways to universities to government. I’m an optimist and think ultimately we figure these things out. But realistically, it will require capable people at all levels, not just those building these companies.”

Krommenhoek has taught entrepreneurship classes at BYU and highly values his time with the up-and-coming talent feeding into this high-growth environment. 

Taylor Stoker, a sales development at Weave, said transportation is one of the most challenging issues to consider when it comes to Utah’s growth.

“Recently, I moved back to Utah and started working at the Point of the Mountain. I was surprised how slow the traffic still is,” Stoker said. “I graduated in 2017 and felt it was bad then, but it seems road conditions have only become worse. However, I do think in the long run it will improve, and local officials will make it better for the businesses and their employees.” 

To address this, a major highway project is currently underway in Lehi to add more traffic lanes and rework the congested on- and off-ramps. However, slowdowns and longer commute times are the current irritants before the long-term benefits are realized.

Delays resulting from freeway construction have led more people to take the Frontrunner, but the service is also feeling the pressure of growth, according to Mary Rose McQueen. McQueen is a marketing strategy and business operations analyst at Pluralsight who faces a daily commute from Provo to South Jordan — a 30-mile one-way trip.

“It’s becoming hard for me to now take the Frontrunner because it has become very crowded, making me stand for the whole 45-minute ride most of the time,” McQueen said.It’s crazy to think even the ways to avoid the traffic are starting to become crowded and crammed”

Fortunately, local government officials are monitoring and planning for this growth, said Utah Department of Transportation Communications Manager Geoff Dupaix. According to Dupaix, Utah County’s population growth is expected to outpace the growth of Salt Lake, Weber, Davis and Washington counties combined over the next 30 years.

“UDOT works closely with our metropolitan planning organization, Utah Transit Authority, and local communities to identify and prioritize transportation corridors to develop a 30-year long-range plan,” Dupaix said. “The plan is then phased to prioritize when improvements are needed and costs identified so they can be funded. It’s an iterative process that requires continual effort.”

As Dupaix mentioned, several organizations are working on this issue. Utah Department of Transportation is a state government organization that oversees all transportation issues. Each sizable urban area with a population of at least 50,000 also has a metropolitan planning organization, a local policy committee focused on the transportation plans within a specific area. 

Interestingly, there is also a group called the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which is the metropolitan planning organization for whole Wasatch Front, which extends from Provo to counties north of Salt Lake. 

The Wasatch Front Regional Council coordinates and oversees the efforts of the individual metropolitan planning organizations in the area. In 2016, the group put together the Wasatch Choice 2050 goals, a set of regional goals and desired outcomes for the area by the year 2050. This will help the area have shared priorities and action plans for the next few decades, including transportation and clean air. Already under this plan, it has successfully brought UVX, Salt Lake’s light train system, to Utah County.

Some face the frustration of an increasingly bogged-down daily commute, but there is perhaps comfort in knowing several organizations are working on solutions. Further, dealing with the growing pains of a strong and expanding population and business economy is a problem many cities would be happy to have. For the foreseeable future, Silicon Slopes seems poised to experience a great deal of growth and will be an example in how it deals with dynamic change.

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