"Utah is a tough sell," AlphaGraphics Inc. chief executive Michael B. Witte said in a speech at the annual meeting of the Economic Development Corp. of Utah on Wednesday. "If you have lived here all your life, you don't see this.
"But believe me, if you don't live here and you're looking in from the outside, otherwise very educated, liberal open-minded people still look at the Utah environment and think that you guys are from Mars. I'm not kidding."
Witte recently moved the headquarters of AlphaGraphics, a printing company with 340 stores in 24 countries, from Tucson, Ariz., to Salt Lake City after considering several locations around the West.
Witte said he was thrilled with the decision, but was surprised that only a third of his employees came with him. He had expected half to make the move.
"I lost lots of good people that I was sure would move on the issue of Utah," he said.
At the root of the problem, Witte said, was a sense that life in Utah is tied to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City.
"There is still a real perception that there's an undesirable lack of separation between church and state," he said. "Perception and reality are two different things. But if you're trying to attract CEOs you have to attack that perception, because in today's world, that is not seen as appropriate."
"The issue is one of personal freedom," Witte said. "And in today's sophisticated global economy, whether I choose to drink a glass of alcohol or not, I don't want someone telling me when and how."
"I do fear that a lot of what you hope to gain when the world visits here in February of 2002 can be undermined because of the perception" that you can't get a drink here, he said.
Witte's comments prompted whispers in the audience, made up of local owners and managers, state and local officials, and recruiters who are pushing to bring more business to the state. The EDCU is counting on next winter's Olympics to help and is planning special events for business leaders from Silicon Valley and elsewhere during the games.
Earlier in the program, EDCU chief executive Christopher Roybal touted Utah's success at luring AlphaGraphics and nine other company headquarters to Utah, bringing $134.9 million in capital and 1,701 new jobs.
Utah boosters acknowledged Witte's criticisms but emphasized that the problem is image, not reality.
"Every community has its weaknesses and we have ours," said Don Cash, EDCU's outgoing chairman and the chief executive of Questar Corp. "But we have so much to offer. Things look good for Utah. We just have to tell it better."
Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman agreed.
"We're not from Mars," she said. "It's just getting that message out. When people come here they'll find out that it works out, that you can have fun here and they'll come back."