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In quiet Ogden, Utah, a surprising glimpse of income equality

In quiet Ogden, Utah, a surprising glimpse of income equality
Taylee Barnes drives an all-terrain vehicle in Ogden, Utah, a city that's recovered quicker than most from the recession. (Scott Sommerdorf / Salt Lake Tribune)

For a Western town that gangster Al Capone once described as a little too rough for him, Ogden today looks pretty staid and dowdy.

A tired 1950s-style welcome arch hangs over downtown's main thoroughfare. The Utah city has so little in the way of glitz or glamour that folks drive 40 miles south to Salt Lake City just for a taste of fine dining or upscale shopping. Less-kind critics have dubbed Ogden the "armpit of Utah."

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Yet for all its humdrumness, the Ogden metropolitan area is a steady and surprising economic overachiever. Unemployment rates hover around 3.5% versus 5.3% nationally. Residents are more likely to own a home, afford college, avoid debt and have health coverage.

After the Great Recession, the Ogden area recovered all the jobs it lost during the downturn by spring 2013, a full year ahead of the rest of the country. And over the last decade, the metro area's economy has consistently grown faster than the national average.

There's another distinction worth mentioning: Ogden has the lowest income inequality in the country for a metro area with 500,000 people or more.

As the U.S. economy continues its slow recovery, national attention — both on Capitol Hill and the 2016 campaign trail — has focused on narrowing the gap between rich and poor, which by some measures is now the widest since at least the 1960s.

Although the connection between inequality and economic growth is hard to prove, Ogden may offer a glimpse of what income equality looks like.

Sam Archuleta Jr., 37, remembers attending Ogden High School with students from across the economic spectrum. And today he lives in a neighborhood of diverse backgrounds: The electrical engineer and his family live down the street from a superintendent of schools, a lawyer and an owner of a furniture company.

"When it's more equal, you can get along more equally," he says. "You feel pretty good to be neighborly."

Katie Amsden, an elementary school principal, and her husband, Rob, a bus driver, live in a 3,200-square-foot house that's worth about $150,000.

In their 40s, they have two teenage boys and a dog named Bertie. Combined, the couple pull down a little more than the metro area's median household income of about $63,000 in 2013, which is about $10,000 higher than the national median.

"They're not trying to keep up with the Joneses," Amsden says of her community.

When the recession hit, the Amsdens struggled like most, but they got back on their feet fairly quickly. "We have enough for what we need, a little extra for things we want, and a little extra to save," Katie Amsden says. Yet she still rues the day in 1999 when high-end retailer Nordstrom galloped out of town because Ogden refused to spruce up the now-defunct downtown mall. As a girl, she loved visiting Nordstrom with her parents and still misses it. "Oh, yeah, absolutely," she says.

Ogden used to be a hopping, rabble-rousing place. Decades ago when it was a major railroad junction and munitions manufacturer, the story goes that Ogden's train depot would spit out roughnecks onto a row of bars and saloons. Now, the storefronts along 25th Street are more likely to sell cupcakes and yoga classes.

Ogden's economy has held up thanks partly to its large share of federal government jobs that pay solid, if unspectacular, wages. Ogden is a regional IRS center and home to Hill Air Force Base, among other military installations. Another advantage is the area's growing and relatively young labor force, partly an outcome of the larger families in the dominant Mormon community.

In more recent years, the Ogden area has become a hub of outdoor-sports equipment, an outshoot of its natural environment, nestled against the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains, and its role in hosting ski events during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Those jobs have helped to lift average incomes a bit.

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"It's conservative, steady growth," says Dave Goode, who moved his ski and surfing goods company to Ogden from outside Detroit a decade ago. Goode couldn't be happier with Ogden's low cost and strong work ethic. He even moved his production from China to Ogden partly because of the city's cheaper costs.

But he wishes there was a little more of an arts and cultural scene. And he misses having a Whole Foods around to feed his gluten-free diet. "This isn't Park City," he says, referring to the upscale Utah resort town an hour to the south.

Jeff Steagall is another Ogden transplant, having arrived four years ago to be dean of the business school at Weber State University, the area's flagship school. After teaching at the University of Florida at Jacksonville for 20 years, Steagall thinks even the MBA crowd here is a little different.

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FOR THE RECORD

July 20, 7:43 a.m.: This article states that Jeff Steagall was formerly a teacher at the University of Florida at Jacksonville. He taught at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville.

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"The vast majority here don't have a goal of being rich," he says. "They have a goal of working and taking care of their family."

As other cities have watched prices for real estate and services rise due to an influx of wealthier residents, in Ogden average home prices have been stuck at about $150,000 for years. Membership to the city's golf and country club is $4,000, affordable to many middle-class families.

Scott Parkinson, who recently retired as senior vice president of Bank of Utah, says it was only a couple of years ago that his downtown Ogden branch launched a private banking division for "wealthy" clients, which it defines as those who make at least $200,000 a year. Before that there just wasn't a need, he says. "It's certainly not Manhattan incomes."

Twitter: @dleelatimes

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