St. George’s is booming – here’s who’s moving there

St George • Debi Robinson wasn’t “California Dreamin'” driving home from her recent radiation treatment on Southern California’s Garden Grove Freeway nearly two decades ago.

As she watched an empty plastic garbage bag waft across the busy freeway, her mind was elsewhere—on red rock canyons, desert flora, and azure skies.

“I was like, ‘This place is sucking the life out of me,'” said Robinson, who was being treated for breast cancer. “We have to get out of here.”

Their destination, Debi and her husband Greg later decided, was Washington County near Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, where they had vacationed for years. Two years later, in 2006, they were en route to Utah, eventually settling in Ivins, about nine miles west of St. George.

Half a continent away in Wisconsin, Rob and Mary Goodman were considering their next move seven years ago when he retired as director of a professional children’s theater in Milwaukee.

“Where should we go?” Rob remembers asking Mary. “She said, ‘I don’t want to live in Florida or Arizona … But I want maximum sunshine, as much warmth as possible, somewhere near a major airport, good health care and some culture, and I want to live in a small town .’

“So I googled all this and St. George, Utah kept coming up,” Rob continued. “We’ve never been to Utah, but we came to visit. And on the third day we were hiking in Snow Canyon and Mary said, ‘This is it.’ That was in May and by July 4th we had sold our house and moved.”

Not all roads lead to St. George

Unlike Rome, not all roads travelers take lead to St. George or Washington County. But as the anecdotes of the Robinsons, Goodmans, and other newcomers attest, more and more of them are doing it. The data also support this.

According to the latest estimates, Utah has increased its population by 61,242 people as of July 1 this year compared to last year, according to experts and demographers from the Utah Population Committee. About 38,141 — or 62% — are newcomers to the Beehive State, Utah’s largest immigration since World War II.

Washington County’s numbers grew 4,276, or 2.3%, during that period, half a percentage point more than the state’s average of 1.8%. Approximately 91% of southern Utah’s growth was due to immigration. Additionally, the county had the highest growth of any metro area in the country between July 2020 and July 2021, according to the US Census Bureau.

Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute, which assists the Utah Population Committee in compiling annual data, attributes the region’s growth to two main factors. First, she said, is the county’s expanding and increasingly diverse economy, which grew 4.7 percent from November 2021 to November this year, compared to the state average of 2.6 percent.

Chip and Linda Van Wert moved from Lakeville, Colorado and now reside in Washington City.

Second, Gochnour added, Washington County has a great quality of life due to its access to amenities and proximity to national parks, hiking trails, and golf courses.

“The main drivers of migration [to an area] work-related, school-related and retirement-related [opportunities]’ said Gochnour. “Washington County has all three — strong job growth, Utah Tech University, and a climate that’s very attractive to older adults.”

Lifestyle is high on Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli’s list. He said the low crime rate and patriotism of Washington City residents, respect for traditional values ​​and small-town virtues attract people to move to his city, which now has a population of more than 30,000 and is the state’s third-largest city south of Utah County is. behind only St. George and Cedar City.

“We’re not looking for growth, but we welcome those who want to be part of the fabric that we’ve woven here for generations,” Staheli said, acknowledging that growth comes with challenges in terms of providing infrastructure and affordable housing brings.

get off, get on

The Robinsons, like many newcomers to the region, are not entirely comfortable with this growth. The last thing they want is for the St. George area to resemble the bustling metropolitan area they left behind. Still, Debi said it’s important to keep things in perspective.

She said traffic in the area isn’t nearly as bad in the upturn as it is in California, where a drive from her Orange County townhouse in Fountain Valley to virtually anywhere is more of an ultramarathon than a short sprint.

“I hate the freeways in California,” she said. “If you want to visit a friend in California, you have to plan for a few hours delay on the freeway.”

Greg Robinson, who was initially unsure about leaving the Golden State, said their lifestyle in Utah was a marked improvement over California. For starters, they’ve traded in their townhouse for a larger single-family home with a pool, hot tub, and a “million-dollar view” of Red Mountain.

Another bonus is that two couples who are among her closest friends have also moved to the area and Debi’s younger sister, who is retiring, is planning to move to Ivins next year.

The Goodmans, who have settled in nearby Kayenta, have had little trouble making friends and adjusting to the area.

“Kayenta is very inclusive,” said Rob Goodman. “I have Mormon friends, Republican friends, and superprogressive friends. I have many friends from the Salt Lake City area who have moved here. We were able to integrate pretty well.”

Chip and Linda Van Wert, who moved from the Denver suburb of Lakewood ten years ago and now live in Washington City, said their Utah home is newer and nicer than the one they left behind. They also appreciate Washington County’s amenities such as a small airport, quality medical care, and a good statewide library system.

“We wanted to move to Santa Fe, but we couldn’t afford it,” said Linda, a retired technical librarian. “There was a recession going on at the time and a lot of the areas we looked at had some sort of crater, but St. George looked like it had weathered it [economic downturn] Well that was a factor.”

Despite what Washington County is, Orange County transplants and political conservatives Tony and Patricia Sweett are thankful for what it isn’t — “liberal tax-and-spending California.”

“We both knew we wanted to leave California because of the crappy politics there,” said Tony, who sold his Orange County auto repair business and now lives in Virgin and works as a part-time truck driver.

According to Washington County Elections Commissioner Melanie Abplanalp, there are 67,164 registered Republicans in Washington County compared to 9,796 Democrats.

Acclimate and assimilate

As attractive as Washington County is, newcomers quickly discover that it’s not without its quirks. For example, when Debi Robinson moved to the area, she felt something was missing.

“And then I found out,” she said. “There were no people of color around. We were used to California, which is a real melting pot.”

According to the US Census Bureau’s 2021 estimate, Washington County is approximately 92% White. Its residents are also predominantly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just over 61% of the residents belong to the dominant faith.

This can present a challenge for newcomers unfamiliar with LDS beliefs. Luckily for the Robinsons, a Lowe’s worker making a home delivery gave them the facts about the religion. And one of Greg’s co-workers lent him a copy of Gangsters and Mormons, a comedy about a gangster and his family who move to a town in the narrows of Utah in the federal witness protection program.

“We show it to our friends when they come to Utah to visit us,” Greg said. “They think it’s hilarious.”

The Robinsons say their LDS neighbors are largely unremarkable. Debi says many of her best friends are ex-Mormons.

It can be confusing for Van Wert, Utah’s addressing system, which often emphasizes numbers and avoids names. When she gave her home address to her nephew, he told her that she had to live in the country where they only use GPS coordinates instead of street addresses.

Despite the quirky first impression Washington County sometimes gives, few of the newcomers surveyed by The Tribune have qualms about moving there.

“We haven’t regretted moving here for a second in the last seven years,” said Rob Goodman.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. St. George’s is booming – here’s who’s moving there

Justin Scacco

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