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Karen Wikstrom, a financial analyst and consultant who helped local and state governments, school districts and nonprofits throughout Utah plot their futures, died unexpectedly at her home in Salt Lake City on Aug. 9.
Wikstrom was 54. The cause of her death has not yet been determined.
From the tiny town of Alta to the Jordan School District and the Sundance Film Festival, numerous entities in Utah relied on the expertise of Wikstrom and her firm Wikstrom Economic & Planning Consultants Inc. at one time or another over the past 24 years for help building sustainable enterprises and vibrant spaces.
"She was really interested in economic sustainability in communities," said Soren Simonsen, partner in Community Studio and a Salt Lake City councilman who served with Wikstrom on the University of Utah's College of Architecture + Planning board of directors. "People often focus on the environmental or the cultural. Her focus was how to help communities, local governments and nonprofits thrive and survive."
A decade ago, after Wikstrom helped the Jordan School District develop a 10-year master plan, then Superintendent Barry L. Newbold wrote a letter of recommendation praising the firm's work as "outstanding" and noting that, "Whoever you may select for your project, other than Wikstrom, will be second best."
Among the company's high-profile projects was an analysis of whether it made economic sense to move the Utah State Prison from its current location in Draper. Working with a consortium of firms, Wikstrom concluded in 2005 that costs outweighed economic gains at that time. Wikstrom also conducted a later study of possible locations for a new prison, which concluded Tooele County was the best option.
Wikstrom grew up in Ogden as the youngest of five children of Dorothy and Jack Wikstrom.
"She was one of those people who everybody wanted to be around," said her sister Mary. "She was just very outgoing … the life of the party, somebody who enjoyed life and enjoyed bringing life to other people."
Wikstrom graduated from Smith College with a degree in economics and then received a master's of science in finance from the University of Utah and a degree in Art and Architecture from the City of London Polytechnic. As she launched her company, Wikstrom still found time to be of service to community nonprofits such as the Children's Aid Society of Utah, Artspace and ASSIST Utah, where she served a turn as board president.
Wikstrom was "always very thoughtful and insightful about community development issues," said Roger Borgenicht, director of ASSIST Utah. "Whether it is the economic influence or social impacts, we all come with our own particular focus, but when people can look at the same problem from different angles, that is what is so critical, and I think Karen tried to do that."
Added Mary: "She was a very passionate person. When she cared, she cared deeply. She wasn't just doing a job."
In a family of high achievers, his sister "certainly rose to the challenges and was an amazingly accomplished person, not only on the professional side but she also had these artistic talents," said Fran Wikstrom, one of three brothers.
Wikstrom painted landscapes, abstracts and portraits as well as silk scarves. At heart, Wikstrom was a singer/songwriter who played guitar and liked Indie rock and Jazz. She called herself a "white-glove singer" and after years of honing her talents had begun to record her original songs and perform locally with her ensemble Les Grooves Artistes.
"She really loved singing those sad, torchy love songs," said Marty Steinberg, a producer and drummer who worked with and performed with Wikstrom over the past 18 months. "She was really putting herself out there with her tunes. She was such a multifaceted, driven, talented woman."
Her rendition of the Jazz classic "Peel Me A Grape" and her original song "I Want to Be Nancy Botwin" a wry ode to the drug-dealing star of the television series "Weeds" had recently begun to get air time on KUER's jazz music programs. Wikstrom was thrilled by that.
"Tonight I felt like the kids in the movie 'That Thing You Do' when I was in my car and heard my own voice coming out of the radio! I was stunned, then (as we used to say in college) 'wicked excited.' I grabbed my phone and recorded it (can you believe it?)," Wikstrom said in an email to friends in early July.
Wikstrom is survived by her two children, Elsa and Jack; siblings Fran, Tom, Martin and Mary; and numerous nieces, nephews and cousins. The family will hold a memorial service on Saturday to celebrate Wikstrom's life. In lieu of flowers, friends and associates are invited to make donations to one of Wikstrom's favorite charities. For information, contact Mary Wikstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org.