Thursday, October 01, 2015

Newsweek Repeats the Ogden Miracle Myth

Same old statistical blunders; same old revisionist history

By Dan Schroeder

A lie can run around the block before the truth gets its boots on, as they say.

Regular readers of Weber County Forum are well acquainted with the lie I have in mind: that Ogden was a festering hell hole until January 3, 2000, when Matthew Godfrey swept into office and set us on the road to prosperity.

The latest version of this revisionist history comes from the current cover story in Newsweek, by Leah McGrath Goodman: “As Wealth Inequality Soars, One City Shows the Way.” Yes indeed, that one city is Ogden—sortof.

The article is a typical example of a common journalistic device: A national-level reporter has a national story to tell, but needs a local example to bring the story to life. So the reporter comes to town wearing tinted glasses, seeing only what fits the pre-determined narrative.

I grew up in a town that was subjected to this treatment, in a very negative way, by CBS News in 1966. Fortunately, the recent stories featuring Ogden have been much more favorable—at least to present-day Ogden.

Before getting back to Newsweek, I should also mention High Country News, where writer Jonathan Thompson used Ogden and Godfrey to illustrate his 2012 article “Red state rising: How the Mormon GOP runs Utah with a collectivist touch.” That article told how Utah’s government officials routinely dictate development plans and funnel subsidies to businesses, even while professing to hate big government and love free markets. Thompson, an apparent liberal, portrayed this practice favorably—and Godfrey made a great example. But the ex-mayor fooled Thompson with the hell-hole-before-January-2000 myth, and Thompson gave the myth yet another run around the block.

Newsweek began with a similar narrative: Wealth inequality is one of America’s biggest problems these days, but it’s not as extreme in some places, and that must be because of what local governments are doing in those places. It so happens that Utah ranks quite low (which is good) in a particular statistical measure of financial inequality. Moreover, according to the most recent Census data, the Ogden-Clearfield Metropolitan Statistical Area ranks lowest nationwide by that measure, among metro areas with more than 300,000 people.

Armed with this statistic (which I’ll return to below), Goodman visited Ogden City to find out how our local government accomplished this admirable feat. For her source she chose Tom Christopulos, Ogden’s Community and Economic Development Director. While giving her a tour of Ogden, Christopulos fed her the usual mythology about Ogden’s dismal past, highlighting Godfrey’s role and his own in turning things around. And the author dutifully recited the version of Ogden’s history she got from Christopulos.

Here are a few of the historical howlers from Goodman’s article:
  • “By the late 1990s, the city was in dire straits, its once-resplendent downtown in a shambles and its 25th Street shopping district vacant.”
  • “The turnaround began in 2002, with the election of 29-year-old Matthew Godfrey... who spent the next decade tearing down and rebuilding the city’s downtown...”
  • “By 2007, their efforts to attract commercial tenants to Ogden’s newly renovated historic buildings started to pay off...”
Those of us who live here can easily detect the grains of truth within these distortions. Parts of 25th Street really were vacant during the 1990s (parts of it still are). The Ogden City Mall really was in dire straits by the end of the 90s, and Godfrey really did tear down and rebuild most of that property by the time he left office. Amer Sports really did move into the American Can Building in 2007. But in each of these statements, Goodman paints with far too broad a brush.

So here, for the record, are a few facts about what was actually happening in Ogden during the 1990s:
  • The Union Grill restaurant opened in Union Station in 1990.
  • By the mid-1990s, much of the 200 block of Historic 25th Street was occupied with attractive new businesses, many in recently renovated buildings. A few that I remember are/were City Club, Brewski’s, The Daily Grind, Great Harvest, Pan Handler’s, and La Ferrovia.
  • Rooster’s restaurant and brewery, which is even pictured in Goodman’s article, opened on 25th Street in 1995.
  • The renovated Egyptian Theater, Eccles Conference Center, and Lindquist Field all opened in 1997.
  • The first phase of the Ogden River Parkway was completed in 1992, and most of the developed trailheads along the east bench were in place by the end of the 1990s.
  • Other improvements were underway by the end of the 1999, even though they were completed a little later: the renovation of the Ogden Municipal Building; the new public safety building; the Intermodal Hub; and most importantly, the Colonial Court Apartments, which brought hundreds of new residents into downtown Ogden for the first time in decades.
Of course the list of improvements to Ogden since 2000 is also impressive, and I don’t mean to downplay those improvements. But to claim that the entire downtown was in a shambles before that, and that the turnaround didn’t begin until 2002, is simply wrong. The revival of downtown dates back to at least a decade earlier. Meanwhile, there are many parts of Ogden that haven’t changed noticeably in the last 25 years.

But, then, what about those economic statistics that make Ogden look so good? The truth is that those statistics have virtually nothing to do with the recent changes in downtown Ogden.

First of all, Goodman’s article says nothing at all about what Ogden’s inequality index was in the past. For all we know it was even better in 1995, and the wonderful improvements that Goodman describes have made it worse. After all, Mayor Godfrey’s stated goal was to make Ogden into a trendy tech hub or resort town, like Boulder or Telluride, where the inequality indices are quite high.

But more importantly, Goodman repeatedly conflates Ogden City, population 85,000, with the Ogden-Clearfield Metropolitan Statistical Area, population 600,000. Virtually all of the economic statistics that she quotes are not for the city but for the metro area, which extends north into Box Elder County and south to the Salt Lake City limits.

Think about that for a minute: Even North Salt Lake and Woods Cross and Bountiful are considered part of the Ogden metro area, for the purpose of a whole variety of U.S. Government statistical information. Our “metro” area consists almost entirely of middle-class suburbs, so of course it will get a low rating in any statistical measure of inequality. The same would be true if you looked only at the suburbs of most other American cities, because both the wealthiest and the poorest people tend to live in big cities. But for whatever reason, the government has seen fit to amputate all of Salt Lake City’s northern suburbs and graft them onto Ogden for statistical purposes.

This unusual delineation of metro area boundaries also makes Ogden look good for another reason. Most of Utah’s rapid population growth is happening in the suburbs, and many economic statistics—especially job growth—are strongly enhanced by rapid population growth. Goodman’s article talks a lot about jobs, especially in the technology sector, without ever mentioning that those “Ogden” technology jobs are centered around Hill Air Force Base, in Davis County. Other parts of Davis County are growing rapidly because of their proximity to Salt Lake County, where there are even more jobs. According to Census Bureau data, more than 40% of Davis County workers commute to jobs in Salt Lake County; fewer than 15% commute to jobs in Weber County.

Goodman isn’t the first writer to give Ogden City credit for growth that’s occurring in Davis County. Three years ago I wrote about a couple of superlative job growth ratings that “Ogden” had recently received, and that city officials were taking credit for. To sort out where the jobs were actually being added, I dug into job statistics on finer geographical scales. Nearly all the new jobs turned out to be in Davis County.

Now seems as good a time as any to update those statistics from my 2012 article. So here, first of all, is a graph of the numbers of jobs in Weber and Davis counties since 1990:

As before, these numbers come from the county-level data at the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, under Quarterly Census of Employment & Wages. Focusing on just the last several years, we see that both counties are now steadily adding jobs, but Davis County recovered from the Great Recession much faster than Weber.

At a more local level, the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap database now includes data through 2013. This data must be used with care, because before 2010 it did not include federal employees—and Ogden’s biggest employer is the IRS. Making matters worse, there’s no good way to subtract out the federal employees from 2010-2013, to make a fair comparison to earlier years. To make that comparison I’ve therefore subtracted out all “public administration” jobs, which also includes some state and local public administrators. On the following graph, the darker lines include all the jobs in the database (and therefore can’t be compared across 2009-2010), while the lighter lines exclude public administration jobs:

Three years ago, when the data stopped at 2010, I concluded (from the light purple line) that Ogden had suffered a net loss of about 2000 jobs between 2002 and 2010.  The good news is that Ogden has regained those jobs, plus about a thousand more, as of 2013. Ogden City isn’t gaining jobs nearly as fast as the rest of Weber County, let alone Davis County, but at least we’re finally back in positive territory, relative to 2002. Let’s hope this trend continues.

In summary, whether you look at official government statistics or specific on-the-ground improvements, there’s plenty of good news about Ogden’s economy. It’s too bad that the actual good news isn’t good enough for journalists or politicians, who find it necessary to exaggerate and to make misleading (and petty) comparisons to Ogden’s past and to other great communities around Utah and the rest of the country.

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