A Vision for the Future of Lehi with Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson

Podcast with Mayor Mark Johnson
Mayor Mark Johnson

Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson’s Story

I think it’s important to know that our leaders are average, everyday people who have just decided they want to make a difference and part of the reason for this podcast is to encourage people to be more involved, so I asked Mark to tell us his story.

Always Loved Lehi:

I did not grow up in Lehi, but I spent a lot of time growing up here in the summer with friends. As a kid, I’d swim in the creek. Often, we’d go fishing. I actually grew up in Pleasant Grove, but I always wanted to move to Lehi. When my wife was working in Provo and I was working in Bountiful, we decided that Lehi was about the best center point between those two locations that we could find. We started looking, we found a house, sold our other house, and moved here, and we have not looked back. It has been a wonderful community,

Saw Need for Change in Development in Lehi

In the early 2000s, I started watching how Lehi was developing. I was concerned with some of the things I was seeing going on. Lehi was filling up with starter homes, just nothing but starter homes. Developers would come in and they’d apply for rezoning and generally they’d always got it.

At one point, I actually found the street in Lehi that had a for sale sign on just about every other home down that street. So, I actually parked my vehicle, got out, walked down the street, and I started knocking doors asking people why they were moving. The story was very similar all the way down the street.

 Everybody loved Lehi, they wanted to stay, but their families were growing. They bought their starter home here. Their lot was small enough they couldn’t expand their home and they couldn’t find any larger lots in Lehi. I realized that what was happening is that Lehi was becoming a transient community, and that’s just not a good thing.

Getting Involved with City Government

Lehi City Logo

I decided I was going to run for elected office. I ran and I lost. During that process, I actually ran twice and I lost. But during that process, I made some points that I guess got somebody’s attention because they put me on the planning commission.

I served on the planning commission for three and half years and we made a lot of changes in the zoning ordinances here in town. We created some new zones and we discussed the importance of holding to some of those zones and we created diversity in town, in housing.

Starter homes are important. Apartments are important, so are some larger lots and some medium-sized lots because people have different interests at different stages in their lives. We’ve all gone through that, and so those ordinances that we applied have done very, very well through the years and there became a vacancy on the city council. I was appointed to the city council and then I ran in the next three elections and won in those three elections. We continued with that idea of creating zoning laws that would help with the diversity in our living situation and today with the rapid growth, we’re struggling with that.

In the end of 2016, I had decided I’d had enough of being on the city council and needed to start spending some time with the family and just relaxing and so I decided to leave and voluntarily stepped out.

Running for Mayor

Mayor Johnson Signing

Shortly before the election in 2018, I was encouraged by some people in town that I should run for mayor. We had a great mayor at the time. I worked with him and I knew him well. He and I had some very different philosophies on how things should be managed in the city, but I was encouraged and I ran.

I didn’t know if I could win that election. I didn’t want to come in second through the primary, which is exactly where I came in after the primary, so I had to finish it to the end. I was down- I was down 11 points in the primary, but I decided I don’t really do things halfheartedly, so I decided to work at it and see what would happen and I ended up winning by I believe it was 11 points, so it was a pretty large swing, and as you know, in politics that seldom happens.

When I asked him how he was able to win by 11 points and keep persisting, Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson responded, “It was a lot of hard work and hard work does not worry me at all. I’ve just- that was one thing that was taught to me by my parents is that you have to work hard at everything you do in life and we literally had to because of my life circumstances as a child and so yeah, I just worked hard. “

Favorite Part of Being Mayor

I asked Mayor Johnson to share his favorite part about being mayor,

“Oh, you know, it’s hard to just pick one particular answer to that, but I like to see some of the progress that gets made while we’re still able to keep some of the old hometown values that we have here in Lehi, so the high-tech growth, I think is a good thing. Stan,you were part of that. Micron kicked that off. We know that.”

“It’s created very good jobs here in town, and a lot of jobs here in town, but we’re still able to keep things around our roundup days, our miniature float parade and some the activities we have here. We have a lot of activities in Lehi, and I wish more people would participate and find out about those because that is- that’s the heart of Lehi. That’s what keeps us bound together.”

Growth in Lehi

Lehi City

We started with Micron, but then Thanksgiving Point came along and its just kind of organically happened as far as I can see, but I know there’s a lot of planning and a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. I asked Mayor Johnson to explain to me how the growth happened.

 “You know, I’m not even sure and can’t say because I was not involved in what turned the tide. I know Micron, as you mentioned, played a big role in that. I’ve heard multiple times about the conversation with the governor coming down and sitting in the Holbrook’s home in their living room and discussing why this was a good thing to happen to Lehi and the convincing that went on and that certainly started the high-tech industry’s interest here in town.”

“Lehi is in a very good position. We’ve been tagged as the economic engine of Utah. We’re actually centrally located for the population in the entire state, and that’s something a lot of people don’t realize. We are the very central area of the population.”

“It’s had its headaches for sure, and those headaches that come with growth. That was the reason I wanted to get involved because I decided we had to make some drastic changes in transportation and transit and make sure that our infrastructure was protected for the future because I was very aware of the growth demographics and how they were going to affect Lehi and we’ve had to make some changes in our planning philosophy. The old planning worked. It made us what we were, but the new planning, we have to prepare for these densities that we’re dealing with right now.”

Biggest Surprise Serving as Mayor

I asked Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson to share what surprised him the most? When we’re on the outside of government, we think it’s a big black box and there’s nothing we can do to influence it, but once we get inside, we realize that they’re normal people doing normal things every day, but tell me what your biggest surprise was.

Mayor Johnson said, “Oh, you know- well, as mayor and having formerly been a council member, I would say there weren’t a lot of surprises. I remember at my very first meeting, our city administrator, Jason Walker, came up and met me in my work office, which is right up the street from city hall. He sat down with me, and he said, ‘Okay, what do you want to do? What’s your goals?’

And I laid those things out and I’d like to see this done differently and this done differently and I like these things. I’d like to continue these, but I laid out my concerns about the infrastructure, my concerns about growth, and how to manage that. I laid out how we service people in Lehi. That was a concern because I decided anybody who calls Lehi ought to be able to speak to a live person, and I said these are the things I want to correct.

Jason got right on those and we immediately started to see some changes at the city and as you know, some of those changes, whether it’s in business or whether it’s in a government agency, they take time because you’re reestablishing the processes that people have been used to for years. And I still get complaints when somebody calls and they said well, I can’t get ahold of anybody. All I’m getting is a busy signal or I get a recording. So, I tell them that I can make a call and we usually can address those issues almost immediately. So we’re still working on that, but the progress has been, I think, good and it was a surprise to see the employees of the city respond as quickly and as willingly as they did to some pretty big changes.

Favorite Things about Lehi

I asked Mayor Johnson to share his favorite thing about Lehi.

Mayor Johnson said, “That one’s probably the easiest question you’ve asked me so far, Stan. So, when I was a kid growing up in Pleasant Grove, if we needed to make a big purchase, we’d get in the car or the truck and we’d drive out State Street all the way out to Salt Lake City to find a store to buy what we needed. As things progressed through my life, through most of us in Utah County, we found out we could buy things in Orem and Provo. And I remember my mother, she never could really go grocery shopping in Pleasant Grove. She had to drive over to American Fork or she’d drive to Orem. Sometimes she’d drive all the way to Provo.

“Well, you know, it hasn’t been that many years now you can find almost anything you want now in Lehi City. We have our own mall. We have several grocery stores here in town. We have several restaurants. You used to be able to count the number of restaurants we have in Lehi on one hand. We still were driving to Orem and Provo to find some things. You can you order things from the comfort of your own home here and have it delivered to your house. if you want to go to a restaurant, if you want to go to a clothing store, if you want to go to a sport store, it’s here. It’s here now and it’s a very short distance and so I think that’s a good thing, so you don’t have to take an entire Saturday to go find yourself a bedroom lamp anymore. You can find it here in town.”

Center of Utah County Moving North to Lehi

Center of Utah County Moving North

I told Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson a story about a conversation I had with a candidate for Provo City Council.

I had served on the Provo City Council. I was involved in Provo City- I was on the planning commission, the library board, I’ve had just a wonderful time learning about local government through my service in Provo City, and then I went on to be chairman of the Utah Republican Party and was on the State Board of Education.

I kind of got away from the Provo-centered stuff, and I got a call one day from a candidate for city council, and he said, ‘Stan, what’s the biggest issue in Provo?’ And keep in mind, by this time I’d lived in Provo for 30 some odd years, so I knew Provo backwards and forwards, and I thought for a minute, and I think he wanted me to say it was housing issues or maybe congestion.

I told him it was relevance, and it was like dead silence and he said, ‘What do you mean relevance?’ I said, “Provo has been the center of this county since its founding, and you are in danger of losing your relevance to Lehi. The center of the county is moving north. Of course with the university there, actually two universities if you count UVU out in Orem, you’ll always have a strong presence in this county, but in terms of being the place where the action is and where things are happening, that’s moving up towards Silicone Slopes and you need to figure out how to keep Provo relevant and how to keep it vibrant and the center of things.”

That was not what he was looking for, Mayor. I’m telling you, he went away I think just baffled by that answer, but I think so even more today than I did five or six years ago. I think the center of the county has kind of moved north and it’s just fascinating watching it. Now, I think my friends down in Spanish Fork and Payson might disagree a little bit, but that’s just kind of my observation.

Mayor Johnson said, “One of the fellows I work with is down in Santaquin and they’re seeing expanding growth. I listened to Mayor Wright, and your conversation with him and he talked about the growth and how it’s hitting Payson. It is hitting everywhere in Utah County. In some ways, I’d say Lehi City, we’re pretty fortunate because it started here and we’ve been able to manage at least the economic side of it, the transportation systems, as you are probably aware. I’ve been working very, very hard on that and making some arrangements for our future that will handle that growth better.”

“I was at a convention up in Salt Lake and Natalie Guckner was there, and she was the keynote speaker during our lunch, and we took a table in the back of this large room and she gets through her numbers going through what’s going on in Utah, the entire state. Then she says, “This is your economic strength and this is big. This is a big deal.” And then she says, “Okay, who in here is from Lehi?” And I’m sitting there with our power director and my city administrator and we look at each other like wow, should we raise our hand?

“Well, we did, and she goes okay, she says, now I want you to pay attention. I’m going to go over some these same numbers and kind of pull Lehi out of this, and at the end of her demonstration and that speech that she was giving, she made this statement that Lehi is the economic engine of Utah right now and will continue to be. So when you look at where Lehi was 30-40 years ago and look at where it is today, the transformation is incredible.

I realize it is very, very hard on some old timers here in town and the people who lived here and in fact, people who just moved here five years ago, they complain about the growth and in fact, I sat in a meeting once with a homeowners’ association that had probably 65-70 people in there, and they wanted me to just stop all the growth in Lehi. When I stood up, I asked them by a raise of hands, how many of you have grown up in Lehi? And nothing. There was one girl who started to raise her hand, but her elbow kind of stayed on her side, so it was only kind of a half-raise. So, I said, oh, you grew up in Lehi, and she goes well, I visited my grandparents because they lived here when I was a child.”

“I said ‘You’re the growth, and we have to manage that, so where you have economic success like we’ve had, growth does follow.’ Part of the equation that we just can’t forget about here in Utah, particularly in Utah County, is Utah County’s had like the largest growth rate year after year after year of many counties throughout the entire United States. And that growth rate is catching up to us. We are going to have to deal with that.”

“That is a reality and it is a very challenging situation, but we’re making some plans now that I think will help us deal with that in the future, but I’d say I’m pretty proud of where Lehi is. We do get national recognition now.”

“In fact, it’s interesting. I was talking to somebody who had moved here recently and they were down in California and they were leaving their place of business to move to Utah, and his boss asked him. He said, ‘So where are you moving in Utah? And he responds, ‘I’m moving up to Salt Lake City.’ He wasn’t. He was moving to Lehi. And his boss said, ‘Salt Lake City? I’m not sure exactly where that’s located.’ No kidding. This is how the story was told, and he said, ‘Well, I’m actually moving to Lehi.’ And his boss says, “Oh, Lehi, okay. Now I know where you’re moving.’”

Vision for the Future

Lehi City

I asked Mayor Johnson what he sees for the future of Lehi and what he wants his legacy to be.

Mayor Johnson said, “I have spent a lot of time working with UDOT, the UTA, many of our state representatives. I’ve been in meetings with the governor’s office and Wasatch Regional Council. I’ve participated in a number of committees trying to plan for the future, and I’ve developed some pretty good relationships with all those organizations. I would say that we’re having some very, very good discussions on how to deal with the future and what we know is coming to us.”

“I believe we’re making some very good decisions right now that in the next five to 10 years are going to be very important to Lehi so that our congestion doesn’t continue to get worse. The tech corridor by I-15 is finished now, and it’s nice to have.”

“I think you’re going to see a lot more telecommuting occur in the future. That’s the one thing I think 2020 has taught us, and that’s a good lesson to learn. So, in my conversations with the businesses, they’re comfortable with continuing with networking the way they’re doing that today. They expect to open up and still have people come to work, but they still see that telecommuting is going to be a very big part of that. That will help us with our transportation issues and some of our other infrastructure issues that we’re facing. As far as my legacy, I hope that I get identified as somebody who’s actually saw what was happening and found a mechanism to be able to direct things in a way that it won’t be an out of control headache for Lehi City.”

Economic Recovery

I asked Mayor Johnson to share anything else that was important to him.

Mayor Johnson said, “Let’s talk about economic recovery and what’s been going in Utah. You know, 2020 has just been a tough year for a lot of businesses, a lot of families. A lot of homes have had struggles. I serve on the economic recovery board for Utah County. We were fortunate enough to get a large amount of money from the CARES Act and we distributed $20 million to the businesses that were suffering.”

“Our committee put together an evaluation sheet where we could identify those people who needed help. And by the way, the interesting thing is that a lot of businesses actually did better in 2020 than they did any previous year. Many did. Some did not.”

“So, we had to identify those that did not do as well, and I was concerned through that process about those 1099 employees out there who rent space at a barbershop or a salon, those who work as subcontractors, because they don’t own their own businesses. They didn’t have the opportunity to really to apply for some of the other money available through the CARES Act process. So we were able to identify many of the 1099 employees who had suffered and weren’t able to work and were able to help them out. At the end of the day, we were able to locate many who had suffered, help those, but the shining light on the hill, if you will, is we found another way to work and many businesses took advantages of that.”

“You look at some of our restaurants and yes, some of those restaurants have suffered. I’m glad to see them opening up again. I’m one, as many, I go out to eat now as often as I can and I find those who are open, but I’ve also seen some other small restaurants who, as an example, just operate their drive-through. They opened up their indoor seating for a while and then closed it because they found out there was a bigger financial benefit to just run nothing but the drive-through. It worked for them and they’ve had good economic success with that.

“I’m proud of those who have found a different way to work. We are going to rebound. We’re going to come back. Businesses are going to be successful again, but those who are going to be successful first are those who have found a new way to work and have put that in practice.”

Growth in Lehi

Growth in Lehi. Home With Arrow

There are around 72,000 people living in Lehi right now. When I went to work for Micron in 1997, I’m pretty sure the population was maybe 5,000-7,000 people.

Mayor Johnson said, “You are probably correct. When I moved in ’93, we were at 9 thousand people.”

My two daughters are both moving to Lehi. One is already there. One is soon to be there, and they live over on the west side and so I went to visit my daughter’s home for the first time and as I was driving over, I got off on 2100 north and then started going west and south and I just kept seeing different subdivisions with different types of housing in them and I was really impressed.

I got to her little subdivision and she’s got what I would consider to be a starter home. It’s a beautiful home. She loves everything about it, and then when we were done, we started going north a little bit, trying to get to Pioneer Crossing and as we round our way around and through the city on that west side, what used to be fields are now full of subdivisions with all sorts of different kinds of housing in them. If it’s time to get your first home, Lehi’s a great place. If you need your second home, Lehi’s a great place. If your family’s now 10 kids, Lehi’s a great place. If you’re retiring and you’re empty nesters and it’s time to cut back, Lehi’s a great place. I just think there’s something for everybody in Lehi.

Growth Is Coming Whether You Plan or Not

I tell people all the time that you can either plan for growth or let the growth come, but either way, it’s coming. This idea that we’re stopping growth is just not going to happen, and if we don’t do it well, then people can’t live close to their family. They can’t live close to their work. If we do it well, we can figure out strategies to make those commutes a lot shorter and to allow people a little higher quality of life in the process.

It is just really a compelling issue. In the next 25 years, our county size is going to double. In the next 45 years, our county size is going to triple, according to the University of Utah demographers who look at these trends. It is just fascinating what Lehi’s been able to do to diversify your housing stock because in the end, there needs to be something for everybody. All that exclusionary zoning does it just forces people out who need housing just like everybody else. So anyway, maybe I’m a geek, but I love city issues. They’re really interesting to me. Oh, and I don’t think we’ve mentioned this. You are a civil engineer by trade, so your profession is in civil engineering.

Mark shared his background in design, “Well, I actually have a design degree, but yes, I’ve worked in the civil engineering area for my entire career. I work roads, reservoirs, infrastructure systems, water, and sewers. Those are all things that I just happen to know a lot about and I’ve been doing this for well over 40 years now. I just picked a career that I’ve loved.”

“I love the design career, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do this. I have my own business, which I still have to operate regardless of my time as mayor. I still have this job, but that is what got me interested in politics to begin with. It’s what has kept me interested, and it’s the driving force that makes me want to see that things are done right and in preparation for what we have to deal with.”

“Like you, Stan, I know the demographics. I’m not going to turn my back on them because I know what’s happening, and people think that everybody’s just moving to Lehi. As you know, every city along the Wasatch front is dealing with growth issues and they’re struggling. They are having a hard time and that’s going to happen for a while. So we can either address that head-on and say, ‘Okay, what do we have to do to lessen the impact and keep our quality of life high or do we just ignore it and try to stop it?’ Those who try to stop it usually find that it doesn’t always pan out very well.”

“Yeah, because people are coming. We have tremendous job growth, so it’s really not a matter of whether to do it or if to do it. It’s how to do it. And how to do it in a way that really maintains a great place to live for our kids and our grandkids and even our great-grandkids.”

Mayor Johnson explain, “Well, there is and that complies with our goals. Back in the early 2000s we wanted to see Lehi become something where people would actually be able to move here and stay here and that’s been a good thing.”

Lessons Learned:

Lessons Learned
  1. In the early 2000s, he grew concerned about the number of starter homes in the city and ended up running for a city council seat, which he lost. Shortly thereafter he ran again and won and he served for 16 years. After he left the council, he was asked by several people in Lehi if he would run for Mayor. So, he did that and last year he was elected mayor of Lehi, Utah.
  2. What he likes about Lehi is that when he was growing up in order to get some goods and services, many times you had to travel to Salt Lake City. Then at times you had to travel into Provo. Today in Lehi you can get anything you want in Lehi, Utah. That’s his biggest surprise.
  3. Growth is taking place everywhere in Utah County. Lehi is no exception. Today they have about 72,000 residents in their city. He says he just keeps working at it. He has been working on the transportation problems facing Lehi and the region.
  4. He is very proud of his city.
  5. When it comes to growth, it is a matter of when, not if so he is all about preparing for that future. He is proud of the national recognition that Lehi has gotten.
  6. He has been working closely with UDOT, UTA, legislators, governor, MAG and has served on a number of committees trying to plan for the future not just in Lehi, but for all of Utah County.
  7. One of the things that he believes will happen is that telecommuting will be a bigger and bigger part of our future.
  8. He has a design degree, closely related to civil engineering degree and has been doing that for over 40 years. He loves what he does. That love of civil engineering and design is kind of what got him interested in politics.
  9. He is able to use that degree to better address the growth head on in the city and create a better quality of life.