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  • Monday, October 31, 2016
    "The City that has Changed its Destiny:" Ogden City Profiled in International Publication La Presse

    Note: This article was originally published in La Presse+ as "La ville qui a changé son destin." The following article was translated from its original French.

    A report towards the American dream

    THE CITY THAT HAS CHANGED ITS DESTINY

    AGNÈS GRUDA, LA PRESSE
    OGDEN, Utah — Legend has it that the day he stepped out of the Ogden station to stroll the famous 25th street, Al Capone quickly boarded the train again finding the city too dangerous.
     
    If he was to return today to visit this town of Utah, overlooking the Wasatch mountains, bordering the Rockies, this infamous gangster would have nothing to fear.
     
    This town has come a long way. Only 20 years ago, its main thoroughfare into the center was full of empty businesses and boarded up windows. It was a concentration of misery with its brothels and homeless.
     
    Today, we stroll by stylish restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and yoga studios.
     
    A short 40 minute drive from Salt Lake City, Ogden is in the center of the urban agglomeration [cluster] that features in the top 3 best locations to raise a family, according to Forbes. According to CNN, it is one of the few towns where the cost of living remains most affordable. It is also the American town that boasts the most equalized incomes out of all the agglomerations
    [clusters] of over 300,000 inhabitants, according to the Statistics Department of the United States of America.
     
    Coincidence? Consequence of its very own history? Or the result of a dozen years of relentless efforts by its leaders? A little bit of everything…
    “I AM JEALOUS OF MY SON”
    At the age of 18, Sean Smith earns about 30,000 USD yearly – the equivalent of more than 40,000 CAD. If all goes well, he will get a raise after his first evaluation around the end of the month.
    “I am jealous of him! He already earns more than me,” says his father, Travis Smith, who works as a merchandiser at Walmart, earning $9.25 an hour.
     
    We are chatting in the family home, a small bungalow in a modest Ogden neighborhood. The living room is decorated with homages to Jesus and family values. As are half of Odgen’s inhabitants, the Smiths are of the Mormon faith.
     
    At 9:30 a.m., Sean is emerging from a short night: these days, he’s on the night shift, during which he builds carbon composites for Orbital ATK, an aerospace company. His work contributes to solidify the cabins of planes that will “fly overseas,” Sean proudly said.
     
    It was towards the end of high school that the teenager opted for an optional course of “composite materials” – the training that got him this job. He does not have the intention of stopping there: he wishes to pursue his training in a technical college, and then in a University, all of which will be paid by his employer. In 6 or 8 years, he could become an engineer.
     
    His eyes sparkle as he contemplates the future. “I can see myself working for a company that will build the next space shuttle headed for Mars.”
     
    Not sure that another young man from modest origins would allow himself similar ambitions outside of Ogden. Nor that he could expect to complete his studies without a shadow of debt. In a town where the average price of homes is under $160,000 USD, he will have no issues with buying a home and starting a family.
    THE OGDEN FORMULA
    Sean Smith is the complete product of the technology reversal created by the loss of its most important employers: Defense Depot, a military complex that closed its doors in the mid-90s.
     
    Transformed into an industrial park, the new Business Depot houses today around sixty businesses that have flooded Ogden with 7,000 new jobs, often in areas that don’t require a University degree.
     
    That is the key ingredient to the Ogden formula: a large pool of jobs relatively well paid but not requiring long studies. With time, employees can improve their skills by pursuing training in conjunction with their work. All expenses paid by their employer…
     
    Shawn Owens chose this path by choosing a technical training in transport material inspection at a technical college in Ogden. The training that barely lasted a year allowed him to get a job at Hill Air Force Base, one of Ogden’s foremost employers.
     
    At 26 years old, he has no student debt. He already earns $40,000 a year and can expect reaching $60,000 in the next year…
     
    [He and his wife] just purchased a five-bedroom house with 3 bathrooms for only $165,000 USD. “I don’t even have one year’s experience and I already earn a more than decent salary,” he enthuses.
    TECHNICAL REVERSAL
    Ogden experienced a moment of glory during the gold rush, when it became the railway junction point between the West and the East of the United States. Its decline started with the end of steam locomotives and the arrival of highways. During the 90s, the town was at its lowest point.
    It started emerging from its torpor in 2002, when the Snowbasin Ski Resort welcomed the winter Olympics of Salt Lake City.
     
    Discovering this town nestled at the foot of the mountains, many outdoor companies flocked to Ogden. Especially ski and bike manufacturers – who require carbon fiber skilled workers.
     
    With their “composite material” programs, Weber [Ogden-Weber] Technical College and Ben Lomond High School produced many young cohorts, ready to be hired, clutching high school diplomas hot off the press.
     
    “Three quarters of the students from this school come from poor families,” says Roger Snow, responsible for the scientific and technical training program (STEM) of the Ogden school district. Sometimes they are the first in their family to get a high school diploma.
     
    “These technical trainings allow us to break the poverty cycle, helping them enter the middle class,” explains Roger Snow.
     
    “A six to fourteen-month training is a short jump between a job in fast food and a specialised job in aerospace.” — Terrence Bride, Director [Manager] of Business Development [Division] in Ogden
     
    This technical reversal starts… in kindergarten. At the New Bridge school, children of 5 years old unknowingly learn computer coding principles with the use of building blocks.
     
    In a laboratory, 10-year-old students experiment with 3D printers. They learn to reproduce statues of President Lincoln or make cell phone cases. The day when one of them decides to work at White Clouds, which claims to be “the World's Largest 3D color printing company,” they will be ready…
    URBAN CONSTRUCTION
    When Tom Christopulos took on the post of the Director of Ogden Economic and Community Development, nine years ago, the city’s coffers were at its lowest. They were about to let go of sixty employees.
     
    Under his guidance, Ogden threw itself into a massive urban renovation operation. A dying shopping mall gave way to a restaurant and art gallery complex. Crumbling buildings were transformed into business incubators.
     
    Street after street, the city bought neglected homes, demolished them and built new ones. All this to attract residents and business towards the town center.
     
    Tom Christopulos knows every street corner by heart. “Do you see the construction over there? It will be a residential building with a rooftop pool. The townhouses that we built were sold in less than two years. This vacant space will house a hotel in one year,” he explains as we explore the city.
     
    “Downtown’s renovation is 70% completed,” he explains. “But we still have 20 years worth of projects.” His dream? Cover Wall street that goes along Union Station, where Al Capone is supposed to have stepped out of the train in Ogden, to create an immense pedestrian plaza.
     
    “If Ogden wants to maintain the American dream, it must be a 2016 version, in order to attract and keep the millennial generation,” stipulates the mayor, Mike Caldwell.
     
    A generation that, according to him, does not want to live in the suburbs and fight traffic. “What they want is bike paths, streets where they can walk, good restaurants, time to ski, bike or hike.”
     
    Kim Bowsher is an excellent example of this generation. At the age of 30, she enjoys avoiding the stress of commuting, and bikes everywhere. A business consultant, this young woman comes from Seattle. When she arrived in Ogden, five years ago, she thought she’d landed in a dead city…
     
    Today, when comparing her life to that of her friends in Seattle, she has no regrets. “In Seattle, I had friends with a family income of $250,000 and still had to share an apartment or car. They have debts to pay off and their whole lives revolve around money. In Ogden, most people my age earn less than $70,000 a year, don’t have a University degree, but can afford to buy a house.”
     
    In other words, “with less money, they have access to more riches.”
     
    This is what makes the American dream possible.

    ***

    Note: The following article was translated from its original French.

    STORY BEHIND THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE INGREDIENTS OF THE RECIPE

    AGNÈS GRUDA, LA PRESSE
    Does Ogden really deserve its title of the most egalitarian city in the United States? Only up to a point, says Mike Vaughan, Director of the Poverty and Inequality Center at Weber State University.
     
    According to him, the GINI index, which ranks countries in terms of income distribution, doesn’t apply well to cities, with their random borders. Thus, the Ogden area has lost some of its wealthiest residents; moved to the neighboring states of Nevada and Wyoming, which do not charge income taxes.
     
    Their departure has lessened the disparities in the Ogden area – but this result is somewhat artificial.
     
    It remains that the rich are a little less rich in Utah, and that the poor are a little less poor, acknowledges the researcher. Structural factors contribute to this phenomenon. Especially access to education. Weber State University does not charge tuition to students from families earning less than $ 40,000 US per year.
     
    "Education is the most important factor in the fight against poverty." - Mike Vaughan, director of the Poverty and Inequality Center at Weber State University.
     
    The city has worked hard to attract dozens of companies offering well-paid jobs for unskilled workers. With its urban renewal program, it was able to bring back middle class families to the city, said the researcher.
     
    But there is also ... the Mormon factor. The Mormon Church, whose brand new temple overlooks the city center, advocates volunteerism and social engagement. At New Bridge elementary school 35 volunteers take turns every day reading with the children.
     
    "Businesses tell us that we have a unique workforce, employees who do not take sick leave and have a healthy lifestyle," said Mayor [Mike] Caldwell.
     
    "A diversified economy, technical education programs, investments in infrastructure, links between schools and industry, all this creates a soup that works," said Tom Christopulos.

    A little touch of Mormon faith, with this?