By Theresa Foxley, president and CEO, Economic Development Corporation of Utah
You’ll have seen a lot written last week about Utah’s role in one of our country’s most historic milestones: the completion of the transcontinental railroad. And for good reason! While it’s easy to take for granted our ability to move goods, people, and ideas efficiently throughout the world today, connecting a civil war-torn country through the marriage of the rails changed the course of human events. I marvel at the accomplishment and have an even greater respect for how bold of an initiative it was as I just finished reading Nothing Like it in the World, Stephen Ambrose’s definitive book on the matter. Side note: I highly recommend you add it to your list if you haven’t read it yet.
“Utah, we’re pretty good at bringing things together” has become somewhat of a tagline for us. It’s a promise we offer and it hearkens back to the events of May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit.
From those beginnings, Utah has evolved to become the Crossroads of the West, with enviable infrastructure in rail, highway and air. The 2002 Olympics, yet another example of Utah’s ability to “bring things together,” brought billions in transportation investment our way, particularly in highways and light rail. This infusion of capital and other infrastructure investments are at the basis of our flourishing manufacturing and distribution industries. The billions being invested now in the Salt Lake City International Airport will further the growth of tourism and the general economy.
Back to the history books: A lesser known example of “things coming together” took place a few years earlier than the Golden Spike, when in October 1861, a telegraph line in Salt Lake City completed the connection of networks in the eastern U.S. and California. It was through those telegraph lines that the simple phrase “done” was telegraphed throughout the country upon the driving (or tapping, as it were) of the Golden Spike.
This linking of the coasts via new technology just shows that Utah’s been “wired” for nearly 160 years. And talk about starting a tradition of disruptive technology – the Pony Express ceased operations in a matter of days after this breakthrough.
Fast forward to 1969, when the University of Utah became one of first four nodes on the ARPANET. This precursor to the Internet linked our computers with others at the Stanford Research Institute, UCLA, and UC Santa Barbara. This was the initial seeding of the ultimate emergence of Silicon Slopes.
Today our state’s broadband infrastructure is robust thanks to a long term prioritization of state and private funds. In 2018, BroadbandNow reviewed all 50 states and calculated connectivity at the census block level as well as average speed statewide. Utah ranked #11 in the nation, with only California and Hawaii having higher rankings in the West. As with manufacturing and distribution, our history, financial resources, and ability to bring things together underpin our successful and globally recognized software and IT industry.
Utah has always thrived from the connection between economic development and infrastructure. A lot of factors drive the recruitment of companies to our state. Workforce is paramount. Business friendliness is another. The “long game” – the decades-long commitment to investment in infrastructure – is yet another.
I hope you can spend some time this week enjoying the celebrations paying homage to the band of outcasts (the Chinese railroad workers, the “Mormon graders,” the freed slaves, and the Irish) who built the railroad. We continue to benefit today from their sacrifices to lay some of the most important infrastructure the world has ever seen.