For many years before the state formally organized economic development efforts, it was often the Chamber that served as a key promoter of Utah business.
Gus P. Backman, the Chamber of Commerce of Salt Lake City’s executive secretary, played a pivotal role, particularly during the industrial boom surrounding World War II in the 1940s.
For example, the Deseret News estimated $100 million worth of new industry poured into Utah in 1948 ($746,268,800 in 2002 dollars), and almost as much in 1949. Along with the earlier construction of Geneva Steel, Kennecott Copper expanded its Bingham Canyon operations. Other factories included those that made roof paints, plasterboard, rubber belting, furnaces, corn chips, and men’s pants. In fact, the state drew plants for manufacturing everything from women’s slips to lead plates for batteries.
The era also saw an increasing demand for “The Atomic Age” including products such as uranium, potash, clay products, and gilsonite, an asphalt product found in the Uintah Basin.
At the same time, tourism increased. Some 1,046,000 tourists–then an all time record–visited Temple Square in 1949. Salt Lake’s population swelled from 150,000 to 190,000 between 1939 and 1949. In the same period, Utah’s employment jumped from 80,000 to 129,000 and the state’s annual income more than tripled.
From his years at the Chamber, Backman later recalled highlights. For example, he assisted the local director of the Internal Revenue Service, Merrill Fox, land a new service center for Ogden. The Chamber compiled details about travel distances and other information needed for a potential site at the former General Supply Depot. Meanwhile, Fox made many trips to Washington, D.C., convincing his bosses about the merits of a Utah site.
Backman also recalls how he closed the deal to bring Litton Company to Utah in his apartment on the roof of the Ambassador Club. Backman had made the initial calls on the company to send representatives to Utah. They responded and liked what they found in Utah. Eventually Litton added a second plant to the first built in the state.
Going to unusual lengths wasn’t uncommon for the Chamber. For example, a site study team from Sperry Rand stopped off in Utah at the invitation of Chamber staff member E.H. (Biff) Azbill. A conversation with the team at the Salt Lake Country Club revealed they had been Navy fliers. A Chamber member had an old Navy plane at the airport and the Sperry Rand people asked if they could fly it. They spent a day in the skies over Salt Lake City and Utah eventually landed a plant, beating out Phoenix.
The Chamber also played a unique role in bringing a General Motors training school to Salt Lake City. General Motors had been interested in a site on Foothill Boulevard, but walked away from the project when they found out it wasn’t zoned properly. Backman and Azbill got word of the interest. They called General Motors in Detroit and asked if they wouldn’t reconsider. In an interesting land deal orchestrated by the Chamber, the property in question was annexed by Salt Lake County, given a building permit and then given back to the city after construction had begun.
On another occasion, the Chamber convinced a hydraulic company in Montana to move its entire operation to Utah to serve Eimco, a leading producer of mining machinery. Eimco had relied on eastern suppliers for many of its hydraulic parts. The company, W.P. Blanchard Hydraulic Company, was able to fill Eimco’s needs.
Not only did the Chamber seek new jobs for the Wasatch Front, but Backman wasn’t shy about promoting other parts of the state.
For example, the Thermoid Western Company of Trenton, New Jersey, chose Nephi as the site of its new rubber products plant after first considering Brigham City. Some residents greeted it as the answer to the area’s economic doldrums. In March 1947 residents thanked Fred E. Schluter, president of Thermoid Company in a letter in the local newspaper.
By some measures, Thermoid’s choice of Nephi for its new plant made little sense. There was no nearby source of raw materials and no large nearby market for the company’s products, so freight rates would be higher. Nevertheless, Thermoid officials said they were drawn to the area by the “quantity and quality of Utah workers.” Schluter later told a group of business leaders that Backman and David O. McKay, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had persuaded him locate a plant in Utah. “They convinced us that we should invest in the fine character of Utah citizens,” Schluter said.
Sources: Gus P. Backman typescript, 29 June 1970, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Wendell J. Ashton, Voice in the West (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1950). Pearl D. Wilson, A History of Juab County, (Salt Lake City: Utah Historical Society; Nephi: Juab County Commission, 1996)