Call it a Comeback | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

September 20, 2017 News » Cover Story

Call it a Comeback 

Long mired in economic depression, Midvale’s Main Street dusts off its small-town charm.

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When Midvale City Mayor JoAnn B. Seghini walks down Main Street, she doesn't see the dilapidated, empty buildings which haunt much of its west side. Or the elegant if anonymous buildings on Main's east side that have been converted into retro-chic offices—often stripped down to the original brick walls—of hard-money lenders, accountants, architects and insurers. Rather she sees the world of her childhood, a street that, back then, was "the main shopping center of the south valley," 80-year-old Seghini recalls.

There was a JCPenney, five-and-dime stores, Berns "the working man's market," florists, clothing stores and taverns aplenty. "It had every kind of store you could want," she says.

What killed Main Street off was first the construction of the interstate through Midvale's heart, segregating the west side behind an 18-foot wall, and then, in the 1970s, the boom in malls. Ironically, developers had wanted to build Fashion Place mall at 7200 South and Main, but local politicians worried it would sink an already floundering Main Street. Fashion Place went to Murray instead and "Main Street died anyway," Seghini says.

As stores struggled with declining numbers of customers, some still clung to their businesses. "It was interesting to watch people trying to hang on to what was never going to happen," Main Street antiques store owner and former resident Clark Phelps says. "Dreams that die."

All that remains of Main Street's glory days as a prime-shopping destination, Seghini says, "is a distant echo of the past," epitomized by the weather-scrapped sign of the 10-year-closed Vincent Drug store. Vincent is the street's dowdy star of yesteryear for its bit part in the 1993 cult movie The Sandlot. A nostalgia piece about kids and baseball in the 1950s, it forever froze Vincent Drug in celluloid amber. Peer through the grimy front door today and empty shelving stands forlornly in the semi-dark.

For 40 years, property owners and tenants, business and shop owners who populate the four blocks that make up Main from 7500 South to Center Street have been hoping that it will make a comeback, even as it has become the city's highest concentration of poverty. "They've been waiting; they've been waiting," Seghini says.

A mural on the wall of the Old Town Tavern depicting Midvale’s history - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • A mural on the wall of the Old Town Tavern depicting Midvale’s history

Finally, Main Street appears poised for a facelift. It's one of the last pieces of a development puzzle that's seen Midvale undergo a revolution. Midvale Redevelopment Agency's (RDA) former Director Danny Walz and Economic Development Director Christopher Butte spearheaded the conversion of hundreds of acres of dirt—once home to toxic slag heaps left over from decades of mining—into a mix of offices, shops and homes now valued at $400 million.

The challenge facing Butte and new RDA Director Matt Dahl (Walz was hired by Salt Lake City in the spring), along with a new mayor to be elected this November, is in part, Butte says, to get the 5,000 office workers and residents who now work and live in what's called Bingham Junction to view Main Street as a destination for entertainment and food. Right now, Butte says, "it's a classic diamond in the rough." What it needs is a lot of TLC.

The city hopes that TLC will come out of what are, at this stage, preliminary discussions with taxing entities like Salt Lake County and the Canyons School District to create a Community Development Area (CDA) for Main Street. If successful, that would divert a chunk of future property taxes to the embattled street on the basis that it will result in enhanced property values in the future.

While Canyons' spokesperson Kirsten Stewart says it's too early to comment on what's only been conversation, Butte says the school district "wants to see the development consider the small businesses as well as larger business development."

Seghini shares that concern, but adds she wants some of the property owners to take greater care of their buildings. Since the 1950s, she says, owners on the west side of the street "have done nothing with their property. We want them to be partners to improve the properties that they have."

If Midvale can secure the CDA, the city will be able to financially assist them to do just that. That assumption, however, leads to a new challenge for the city—namely, Butte says, ensuring they "keep the bones of this gem as it is." Walk Main, particularly the tree-shaded south part of the street, and you can still hear, however faintly, the hustle and bustle of its small-town history. "Out on foot is the only way to appreciate it," recently appointed Midvale Police Chief Jason Mazuran says. "It's a unique little road. You feel it in some of the buildings. It feels like Main Street has got some soul down there."

That "soul" matters, Midvale residents say. "Main Street represents for a lot of people the last vestige, the history of this city," says software engineer Sophia Hawes-Tingey, who's running against retired postal worker Robert Hale for mayor in November. She says many residents are concerned about "losing the past, losing something that graphically symbolizes the core value of Midvale."

“Best little liquor store in the - West,” says Midvale City’s Butte - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • “Best little liquor store in theWest,” says Midvale City’s Butte

Casualties of both progress and neglect buttress the street. At 7500 South, the new City Hall stands where a baseball diamond for generations provided a home for little leagues. At the junction with Center Street is a beloved Mexican restaurant, Los Machetes 2. Its doors have been chained shut for several years, the former bank building known as the Mint that housed the restaurant for a decade having been condemned. That followed the discovery that the property owner had dug out the basement to rent to people without papers in very cramped quarters for $200 a month.

Progress inevitably goes hand-in-hand with acquisitions. Rents on Main have, until recently, languished well below those across Salt Lake Valley, mostly because landlords haven't invested in their holdings. That's changing now. Hi-tech and white collar businesses recognize Main Street's potential and real estate investors are buying up long-neglected properties, stripping them down to the original brick and leasing them out at prices closer to the market average. That forces out some tenants accustomed to years of much lower rents, but Jake Copinga, a commercial real estate adviser and investor, says that doesn't necessarily mean there are tenants willing to move in and pay market rate just yet. In an email responding to questions, Copinga writes that he's bought five properties on Main and "renovated one or two. I want to renovate them all but the demand is low and rates are low. I wish I could get triple the rates but the area is just not ready."

Butte, Dahl and RDA Project Manager Annaliese Eichelberger accompany a reporter on a tour of Main Street. While cars frequently go up and down Main, pedestrians are few. Butte is a passionate advocate for the street and a connoisseur of its colorful history. He lifts up the mat at the entrance to the street's only beer hall, The Old Town Tavern, to reveal the tiled mosaic word "Drugs," the property having been a drug store before, then points out buildings that housed brothels early in the 20th century.

They halt before an open door to a newly renovated office building, a square room stripped of its plaster down to the early 1900s brick. Owner Jeff Beck is showing the space to a couple interested in leasing it for an office.

"I believe in Main Street," Beck says. "Its character is very unique. It's walkable and millennials want that. It's the kind of old building that people love." He turns to Butte and jabs at him with his car key. "We've got to do it right," he says about the city's plans to redevelop Main Street. "And I've got to acquire more."

Interior designer Norm Nelson’s studio, soon to close - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Interior designer Norm Nelson’s studio, soon to close

Clark Phelps was born in Midvale in 1950. Back then, he says, you knew the policemen by name, and if they caught you out after curfew, they'd take you home—but not before giving you a good scare.

Life in Midvale, he says, was "just the childhood you wanted it to be"—baseball, riding bikes, "hitchhiking with impunity." He'd know it was 8:15 a.m. because that was when the train went through Midvale. "The Jordan River was pretty rough" from pollution, Phelps recalls, "but it didn't stop us playing in it. We'd go up to the Jordan, shoot guns, kill carp with bow-and-arrow. If we caught catfish, our mothers would fix it."

Mayoral candidate Robert Hale recalls going into Vincent Drug while working for the postal service. When he walked in, "it had the aroma of a drug store that is unforgettable: perfumes, apothecary drugs, personal care items and chocolate. It had a wonderful soda fountain, very colorful and typical of the 1940s, where you'd get an ice cream or a root-beer float."

In a recent piece for The Canyon Country Zephyr, Phelps wrote, "Because of the smelter [in Midvale] and the large open-pit mine in Bingham Canyon, Midvale was a blue-collar town with no real wealth. The doctor and the smelter superintendent lived in the largest houses. Midvale's Avenues were crowded with 800- to 1100-square-foot homes kept near pristine by proud owners." The streets, he continued, were divided by ethnicities; "the Greeks, Italians, Mexicans and Yugoslavians each had their areas."

The "Avenues," directly behind Main to the east, are lined with small houses on cramped lots, some with well-maintained gardens. Seghini says the survival of the Avenues "is critical. It's a neighborhood that has a lot of history and a lot of pride."

  • Steven Vargo

Phelps credits local Latino businesses—hair salons, clothing stores, grocers and taco stands, among others—with keeping Midvale alive in the last few decades.

Latinos make up the bulk of Midvale's 33 percent minority population. Fifty six percent of the housing in Midvale is rental units, much higher than the rest of the valley. RDA director Dahl says 46 percent of renters in Midvale are "rent-burdened," meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Dahl has earmarked affordable housing as part of the plan he's working on this fall.

Hawes-Tingey says the area around Main has been the home for many of Midvale's Latinos for generations. "But it seems like they have been basically pushed and isolated to this corridor of the city," she says. "I think there's a sense of intergenerational poverty that's keeping them in the area."

Serafina Ochoa is the chair of Midvale's community council and welcomes the possibility of improvements to the street, which, she hopes, will balance "that small-town feeling, but still give you the option of an urbanized community." Hers is a community of entrepreneurs. "I don't think it will be a challenge for them to adapt at all." Where the challenge will lie, she continues, is for newcomers "to adapt to the already established environment and diversity."

Remembered for its role in The Sandlot, Vincent Drug is literally a shell of its former self - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Remembered for its role in The Sandlot, Vincent Drug is literally a shell of its former self

Butte highlights a recently opened Latino-owned market called El Potrero (The Ranch) on the street's east side as a positive sign of things to come, as the store had moved over from the west end of the street. Whereas until recently there were three ethnic grocery stores, he notes, "one seems to be emerging as the front winner and has now expanded to this new location. I would foresee the best and brightest to emerge. The not so best and brightest won't."

Close to El Potrero is Beli's, a hair salon and money wiring service owned by Dania Mendoza. In Spanish, she says the street has a richness of history and architecture, but in the decade since she first opened, neighboring businesses have closed and local clients have disappeared. Now her clients come from West Jordan and Sandy. Midvale remains a popular destination for Latinos in neighboring towns, say residents. Mendoza needs customers, she says, and is frustrated the city won't advertise Main Street. "We need club de bailes [dance clubs] like they have in West Valley," that generate pedestrian traffic.

Both Midvale's mayoral candidates seek to boost foot traffic on Main Street. Hawes-Tingey wants to see a revitalized Main Street powered by arts and entertainment, with a strong restaurant offering. "I'd like to see Midvale Main Street be a multicultural arts center," she says. Robert Hale agrees, contrasting Midvale's Main with Moab's bustling Main Street. He envisions a place abuzz with tourists drawn by restaurants, the local theater and neighboring Midvale museum.

The city "needs to support more [of] the businesses" on Main, Mendoza says. She's never seen it "so alone, so very abandoned." She complains about vandalism, broken windows and buildings in disrepair, echoing the owners of a nearby taco stand who claim Main's state of neglect dissuades people from walking it.

"Who wants to come and see ruins?" Mendoza says.

A rare sighting on Main: pedestrians - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • A rare sighting on Main: pedestrians

Several doors down from Beli's, Midvale Liquor Agency's Robert Flygare, who runs what Butte calls "the best little liquor store in the West," presents a more optimistic front. He's been working on Main since 1998. "It used to be a lot more run-down than it is now." What Flygare appreciates is the history in the buildings on Main's southern end. "This building has been around since the 1880s," he says, reflecting on a time when customers would pull up in horse and buggies. "For Utah, you don't go too much further past that historically. This Main Street probably has some of the oldest Main Street buildings in the state."

Norm Nelson shares Flygare's passion for historical buildings, but the interior decorator, located on the west side at the northern end of Main, is packing up his studio to move after investor Jake Copinga bought the property and informed him the rent would go up.

Nelson's been on Main Street for 15 years and recognizes that rising rents are inevitable. As buildings are renovated, landlords "can demand top dollar," he says. "It's strictly just progress."

Latino commerce has played a key - role in keeping Main afloat - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Latino commerce has played a keyrole in keeping Main afloat

A back door from his studio opens unexpectedly onto a city garden Nelson started cultivating a decade ago in a room where the ceiling and roof had caved in. He laid down a lawn, built an ornamental pond and planted trees, turning it into a hidden oasis with a quixotic, European feel.

He finds that rent elsewhere in the valley is double or triple what he's paid for the last decade on Main, but he hopes to find another bargain, perhaps in South Salt Lake or on the outskirts of downtown. He stands in the shade of a flowering apple tree, the pond burbling behind him, seemingly at peace with leaving his secret green space.

"I've learned to be able to leave things," he says. "To not attach myself. It's all temporal." He says wherever he ends up, he will design and build a new garden, indoors or not. "You take it with you in your heart," he says about his Main Street garden. "I can feel it, I just can't touch it."

Old Town Tavern historical mural - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Old Town Tavern historical mural

Built To Last
On a Thursday afternoon, down one of the numerous alleys that divide the one- and two-story buildings on Main, a middle-aged woman who says her name is Dianna sits on a doorstep, her walker in front of her. She pours vodka out of a large plastic bottle into a small one, while explaining that although she lives in South Salt Lake, Midvale Main has a deep, sentimental attachment for her.

The self-described "chubby rummy alcoholic" points at the letters MMF scrawled on the brick wall before her. It stands for "Midvale Motherfuckers," she says, written by a deceased boyfriend she still mourns. "I miss this stupid alley," she says. Ask her what she thinks about the city's plans to channel money into improving Main, she expresses disbelief. "Why in the world would you? If I had money, you think I'd give a rat's ass about this alley?"

Economic Development Director Christopher Butte - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Economic Development Director Christopher Butte

While investors may steer clear of the alleyways, there's a healthy appetite for the buildings themselves. In April 2017, a client asked commercial real estate adviser Dave Kelly to buy land on Main. "What do you think is the missing piece?" he recalls the client asking. "Offices, multi-family, retail?" Kelly believes multi-family dwellings is "the missing middle piece," he says, as Main's buildings are typically 5,000 or 10,000 square-feet, too small for most companies.

Clark Phelps says two investors have approached him about buying his two stores. "They're making silly offers substantially more than I think it's worth." He doesn't think Main's character and spirit can survive the money being thrown at it and all but concedes its demise. "Main Street is past tense, it was something. It's a blue-collar worker that's hunched over with a broken back."

Norm Nelson takes a more optimistic view of the street's future, even as he's packing his studio away. It's popular with film companies for location work, so he believes that guarantees, to some degree, that the city will fight to keep its character alive. Economic Development Director Butte says the key to Midvale's future is knowing its past. "We recognize what we have, what the opportunities are," he says. "We really don't want to screw it up."

Midvale Mayor JoAnn B. Seghini - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Midvale Mayor JoAnn B. Seghini

Hawes-Tingey worries about "the kind of development that may make some of our more marginalized communities feel unwelcome or forced out of their homes." If elected, she says she will push for affordable housing and making sure that "all citizens of this city have a voice, especially when it comes to the heart of this city, Main Street." If there isn't an inclusive dialogue about Main Street's future, she fears, "It will be a very divisive and troublesome issue for years to come."

Kelly isn't sure if Main Street can survive the wave of coming investment. "I do think developers looking to buy on Main Street need to realize it will lose all the charm, everything that makes that little street unique in Salt Lake, if they come in, start leveling it and putting in high rises and density." He argues for larger developments on the streets directly either side of Main. "I hope they try to keep that uniqueness."

One investor who wants to protect that uniqueness is Jake Copinga, the new owner of Nelson's soon-to-be former studio. Midvale Main has gotten under Copinga's skin and he's putting his money where his heart is. "I love old brick buildings and I love old town Midvale. I wish more areas were like this ... working class people that give a shit."

Norm Nelson in his hidden Main Street garden - STEVEN VARGO
  • Steven Vargo
  • Norm Nelson in his hidden Main Street garden
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