Published in The Enterprise, 7-28-03

Progress and Change: Propelling Salt Lake City’s Economic Future

by Rocky Anderson

In June, Employment Review ranked Salt Lake City the tenth best place to live and work in the US, saying “Salt Lake City is booming.” The Review rattled off the benefits Salt Lake City has to offer—amazing recreational access, world-class arts and cultural institutions, a well-trained workforce, reasonable costs of living and doing business, and the allure of being an Olympic host city. The Review even heaped praise on the positive direction that our Downtown is heading, noting that “downtown property values continue to climb.”

The Employment Review is not alone in its assessment of Salt Lake City’s thriving economic climate. Consider the following rankings from the last three years:

  • Inc. Magazine ranked Salt Lake City #1 in America for starting and growing a business.
  • The US Conference of Mayors ranked Salt Lake City one of the top ten most livable cities in the country.
  • Money magazine ranked Salt Lake City the “Best in the West” for places to live.
  • Dunn & Bradstreet and Entrepreneur magazine named Salt Lake City the #3 “High-Tech Spot” in the US.
  • Scarborough Research ranked Salt Lake City the #1 computer-savvy city in the nation.

These national publications realize that one cannot measure economic health by a couple of closed stores or even a slew of recent openings. One must look at the big picture, comparing our city against others nationally and taking into account the fact that Salt Lake City is impacted by the same national economic trends that other cities face. When national experts study how we are doing in context, the conclusion is clear: Salt Lake City’s economic climate is strong and stands poised to see even more rapid growth as the national economy improves.

Salt Lake City needs a mayor who can continue to drive sustainable economic growth by using creativity and flexibility to take advantage of opportunities even as circumstances evolve and national trends change. This must always be done with a view toward the long term, realizing that the health of our business community cannot be separated from the health of our community as a whole.

Three and one half years ago, when I became Mayor, I could never have predicted all of the curve balls that would be thrown my way—the events of September 11th and the resulting economic decline, the challenges of hosting a successful Olympics, the court?s decision in the Main Street Plaza case, the impact of the Gateway on Main Street, the sale of the Crossroads Mall to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each of these situations required sleepless nights, in-depth study, and tough decisions. They also presented the challenge of continuing to move the City forward, with progressive polices and long-term goals, while dealing with the pressing issues of the moment. I am proud of the decisions we have made, the lessons we have learned, and the direction in which we are headed. Given another four years to continue this work, I am committed to working passionately and effectively to see Salt Lake City and its business climate grow and flourish.

Sustainable Economic Development

Shortly after I was elected, an out-of-town developer proposed the creation of a major shopping mall on western edge of Salt Lake City. Some saw this as an opportunity to add to the City’s sales tax base and create jobs. However, a study showed that 90% of the mall’s business would have come from existing retail activity, hurting our downtown retail and small businesses. The profits would largely have gone out of state. And, importantly, the mall would have caused people to drive even farther on a daily basis, adding to our local air pollution problems and creating even more dependence on the automobile. With the support of the Downtown business community, we defeated the “Sprawl Mall” proposal.

This situation highlighted an important lesson: not every “opportunity” is a genuine opportunity. While new buildings and projects have sexy appeal, they do not always reap beneficial returns. The local retail market is not infinite, and without growing the local market, new projects will inevitably have an impact on existing businesses. Therefore, a roadmap for sustainable development requires bringing in new companies and jobs, attracting customers who otherwise would not have patronized Salt Lake City businesses, and supporting projects that have beneficial long-term effects.

This strategy takes time and is affected by the national economy. However, we have seen some very positive developments. For example, in 2000, we recruited AlphaGraphics to move their world headquarters to downtown Salt Lake City. Though they recognized Salt Lake City’s strengths as an economic center, the AlphaGraphics leadership was not convinced about moving here until we took them around the City. We showed them the “intangibles,” including our amazing cultural scene and how diverse, accepting, and vibrant our city has become. After AlphaGraphics made its move, renovating the decrepit Brooks Arcade in the process, Michael Witte, the company’s CEO, told the Deseret News that Mayor Rocky Anderson “is one of your best weapons for economic development.”

The AlphaGraphics example illustrates the importance of keeping pace with national trends and focusing not only on a healthy business climate, but also on a healthy people climate. If people of all ethnicities, sexual orientations, and religions are excited about living in our city—if there is energy in the arts scene, the streetscape, and in neighborhoods—our city is much more likely to succeed in the modern economy. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida outlines research suggesting that the three most important conditions of economic development in the modern economy are technology, talent, and tolerance. While Salt Lake City is strong in the first two conditions, we need a Mayor to champion tolerance and continue the enhancement of a people friendly climate.

Small Businesses

Locally-owned, independent small businesses form the core of Salt Lake City’s economy, employing the majority of workers and providing uniqueness and charm for our community. Every month we promote and visit local small businesses for our Saturday Morning with the Mayor meetings, helpings us maintain our focus on small business issues. One key issue we have addressed is the continuing need for mitigation on the impacts of road construction on small businesses. Having learned important lessons from the success of the University light rail project, we are formulating important new policies, budgets, and procedures for making sure small businesses can survive crucial construction projects.

E2 Business Initiative

All too often, businesses think that doing things in an environmentally conscious manner will cost too much money and hurt business. To debunk this myth, we started the e2 Business initiative, providing tools, incentives, and marketing to businesses who are willing to step up for environmental improvements that will not only preserve resources for future generations but also save money and improve the company’s customer base. Our first e2 Business, the Oasis Café and Golden Braid Bookstore, was so excited about the results that the owner Joel LaSalle told the Deseret News:

It really is incredible. If you’re a smart businessman, you’ll do this. The by-product is that it’s good for the environment, the community and society. And, you’ll see it in your bottom line. We’re up 22 (percent) to 23 percent over the past year. This program made up half of that increase. Customers know what you’re doing, and they’ll respond to it. The public is more inclined and more happy to do business with people who are willing to give back to the community.

Downtown

Utah’s economic epicenter, downtown Salt Lake City and its future have been discussed perhaps more than any other business topic. Hurt by suburban competition, poor project planning, and perceptions of difficult access, our downtown saw a marked decline in the 1970s and 80s. While property values had begun to improve when I took office, Downtown needed a huge boost. Although the total revival will take several more years, Downtown is on the upswing, despite a slow economy, with many positive developments outweighing a few setbacks.

When I was elected, office vacancy Downtown was very high. The Wells Fargo Building, on which the City had spent millions, was virtually empty. Now, the building is nearing capacity. For the first time in many years, office vacancy rates are lower than in the suburbs. Several new tenants have come to downtown, including great new restaurants like Buca De Beppo, 3rd & Main, Cucina Toscana, Hong Kong Tea House, Melting Pot, and the Orbit Café; office users like KUTV channel 2, EAS, urban Utah Homes and Estates, CH2MHILL, Siebel Systems; extraordinary community resources like the Salt Lake Community College Metro Campus and the new Library Square; and wonderful new places such as Angles Café, Da Vinci?s Salon Gallery, and the Urban Barber. In addition to these new Downtown tenants, six businesses were recently approved for $20,000 grants from Salt Lake City to move to Main Street. While there has been some attrition among new businesses, which is natural in an evolving market, the majority of new businesses have been successful.

Lending to Downtown’s upswing is greatly improved access. When I took office, the City Council had voted to kill the University light rail project. After resuscitating the line, we now have a state-of-the art linkage between two of Utah’s largest traffic generators, offering access to Downtown for many potential customers. In fact, TRAX ridership increased 40% in December 2002 over 2001, an increase of 220,000 riders.

For those who cannot use transit, we have made parking Downtown much easier and helped fight the perception that it is difficult to find parking in our Central Business District. We added new parking on 300 South, 300 East, Main Street, and at freight loading zones. We also worked with the Downtown Alliance to implement a parking and transit token program, an effort that had been proposed for decades before a City-Alliance partnership made it happen.

Even bicycle access has increased with new bike racks and the City’s first cross-downtown cycling route on 200 South.

Combine all of these improvements with the completion of I-15 construction and you get what is likely the most accessible downtown of any major metropolitan area in the nation.

To take advantage of this enhanced accessibility, we need to get people Downtown to experience it for themselves. One way to do this is by supporting and improving the quality and quantity of events held downtown. Last year, we hosted 261 events at the Gallivan Center alone, drawing people Downtown to patronize businesses and enjoy the excitement of participating in community gatherings. Other major events like the Utah Arts Festival and our new, world-class Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival put our city on the map as the center of art and music in the Intermountain West.

Another way we have improved the customer base for Downtown businesses is by increasing the number of housing units in and near the downtown area. We now have more than 4500 downtown residents living in 3300 units of housing, more than downtown Denver. In just the last couple of months, we have opened or broken ground on three housing projects near downtown, including the CitiFront Apartments, the Library Square Condominiums, and the 3rd West Apartments.

For those living and visiting Downtown, the pedestrian experience is livelier and safer. Outdoor dining has increased significantly as a result of our new policies supporting the practice, and signage can be more vibrant and attractive thanks to a new ordinance allowing businesses greater latitude. In terms of safety, pedestrians now have a much improved environment with orange flags, better street markings and signage, count-down timers, and increased enforcement of pedestrian safety laws.

All of these developments bode well for Downtown and demonstrate our commitment to improving its viability as our City’s main gathering place and business center. An area as large and significant as our Downtown will always face some challenges, especially as we go through periods of rapid evolution such as the one we currently face. As such, we must have the flexibility and creativity to ensure Downtown changes with the times. Both Gateway and the Main Street area can succeed and complement each other. With the purchase of the Crossroads Mall by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we now have an excellent opportunity to revitalize our Main Street area with unique, multi-use development that will create synergy between Utah’s largest tourist attraction, Main Street’s unique character and historic architecture, and the modern Gateway.