SALT LAKE CITY — Dr. Evan Unger, chief executive of a Tucson, Ariz., biotechnology company, would like to move his business to Utah, which he considers “one of the most business-friendly states in the country.”
He likes Salt Lake City’s airport, its highways and his condominium at Snowbird resort, where he could get in more skiing. He is a Republican, so Utah’s conservatism does not bother him.
But his 19 employees?
“They wouldn’t come,” sighs Unger, whose ImaRx Therapeutics Inc. is developing gas bubbles to dissolve blood clots.
Many of his employees are foreigners, and one is a lesbian with a partner and two children. And Unger says they see Utah as repressive and intolerant.
Some employers and politicians — mostly Democrats — are warning that Utah’s Mormon conservatism is driving away business. They say Utah’s hard-line stands on such topics as gay rights, abortion and alcohol have given the state a reputation as an uptight, reactionary place where diversity is not welcome.
Some Utah leaders dispute the notion that the state’s political bent is a turnoff to business. And clearly it has not been an impediment to some employers.
More than 17 companies have moved or expanded operations here since the 2002 Winter Olympics raised the state’s profile as a place of stunning mountains and red-rock canyons, according to an Associated Press tally.
“I have no doubt that if somebody wants to find companies who wouldn’t move to Utah, they can find those companies. You can say that about any state in the nation,” says Marty Stephens, a Mormon who is the Republican speaker of the Utah House, a champion of its most conservative causes, and a candidate for governor.
For business, Utah has a lot going for it. It has relatively low taxes and cheap utilities and claims to have the second-lowest workers’ compensation rates for manufacturers after Indiana. Utah is particularly attractive to companies that want to escape California’s punishing tax burden, says Adam Bruns, managing editor of Site Selection magazine.
It also has a low rate of violent crime, a family-friendly culture and a vast outdoor playground of public lands.
But some politicians and executives say Utah remains a hard sell for out-of-state companies.
Democratic state Sen. Ron Allen says executives of two companies backed away from plans to move some operations to Utah because of the Legislature’s right-wing politics. He will not identify the companies, but says they would have brought 2,000 jobs.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says the chief executive of a New York publishing house told him the company had decided against moving to Utah after the mostly single employees balked at the idea. He will not name names, either.
The Mormon Church claims nearly three out of every four Utah residents as members, and has tremendous clout in the Legislature, which is decidedly more conservative than the state’s general population.
Utah this year passed a law banning gay marriage, and a constitutional amendment against the practice will be on the November ballot. Utah also has some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws. This year’s Legislature went even further, banning what abortion foes call partial-birth abortions and prohibiting abortions by doctors, clinics or hospitals that get state money.
Bruce Albertson, former chief executive of Iomega, which was Utah’s largest information technology company until it moved its headquarters from Roy, Utah, to San Diego three years ago, says Utah’s “absurd” liquor laws are a big turnoff to businesses.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are forbidden to drink, and the laws reflect that. Most bars discourage drop-ins; patrons have to sign up and pay a membership fee first. Drinkers have to drain a glass or bottle before they can get a waiter to pour another round.
Nevertheless, a few weeks ago, Englewood, Colo.-based Adam Aircraft chose Ogden, Utah, over sites in Kentucky and Texas for a plant that will build corporate jets with a work force that could grow to 500. Chief executive Rick Adam cites Utah’s pool of aerospace workers associated with Hill Air Force Base.
And last fall, Qwest Communications, citing Utah’s pool of high-tech workers, chose Utah over Portland, Ore., Boise, Idaho, and other places for a 155-employee DSL service center.
And not all minorities feel out of place.
“It’s an absolute stunning, beautiful state. We had no idea,” says Rabbi Ari Galandauer, who arrived from Montreal in September to head up an Orthodox synagogue.
Salt Lake City has 6,000 Jews, who fascinate Mormons: They believe they are descended from an ancient tribe of Israelites.
“We find Utah very open to having a Jewish community,” Galandauer says. “Religion, so to speak, is in the air here.”