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Mayor and Downtown leaders say SLC is on the rise

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click to enlarge Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speak at a State of Downtown event on Thursday, May 12. - KELLI FRESHMAN | DOWNTOWN ALLIANCE
  • Kelli Freshman | Downtown Alliance
  • Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speak at a State of Downtown event on Thursday, May 12.

DOWNTOWN—Salt Lake City movers and shakers gathered Thursday high on the 23rd floor of the new 95 State mixed-use tower, where they discussed and celebrated the economic and social outlook of the city—and by extension, state—center.

Speakers, including Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller, emphasized that residents and visitors are ready and anxious to bounce back from years of pandemic-imposed dormancy, while also noting that rapidly-increasing numbers of housing units in and around Downtown will fundamentally alter the ebbs and flows of city life.

Mendenhall said it’s a remarkable time to be living in—and in her case, leading—the city, with signs of change and expansion all around. But she added that she’d much prefer the challenges and opportunities of growth to stagnation and decline.

“You know it as Salt Lakers. We see it around us—we’re literally inside some of it right now,” she said. “We know that we’re no longer a secret in the world.”

Mendenhall also made a point to stump for her recently-released budget proposal—members of the City Council and their staff were in attendance, on top of the overall political influence represented in the room—highlighting quality-of-life investments around new “civilian” police positions, deeply affordable housing and greenspace spending.

On the revenue side, the mayor’s budget calls for putting an $80 million parks and trails bond before voters in November, and a 4.9% increase in property taxes. Mendenhall emphasized the tax hike would be the first such increase in 8 years, and that state law prevents the city from raising sales taxes, which would spread the tax burden among both residents and visitors to the city.

“I know that it has become an incredible priority to get outside,” Mendenhall said. “This budget recognizes that growing demand, especially with the density increases that we’re seeing, most of which doesn’t have a front yard or a backyard.”

Housing trends are such that the number of full-time residents in Downtown is expected to double in less than two years as multiple, large-scale housing developments open their doors in what has previously been an workplace and retail-dominated area.

“That is going to change our city immensely. That’s going to diversify our economy,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, which hosted Thursday’s event.

“People want to live here, people want to work here and people want to play in this place,” Brewer said.

Miller—reacting to the unobstructed, 360-degree view of Downtown serving as his backdrop—rhetorically asked the audience why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

“Our collective affection for downtown sustains our hope, even when the work is difficult,” Miller said. “That affection encourages the dreams and aspirations of the next small business, the next gathering place, the next residential tower and the creations that makes our Downton prosperous.”

The annual State of Downtown event—themed this year as "For the Love of Downtown”—included a keynote address by Peter Kageyama, author of Love Where You Live, For the Love of Cities and other urbanist works. Kageyama complimented Salt Lake City on its recreational and economic advantages, noting that both the Wasatch Front mountain range and the Salt Lake International Airport are visible from Downtown. He also remarked with some surprise that the urban core maintains a shopping mall “that works.”

“This is a city very much on the rise and a city you should be proud of,” Kageyama said.

Kageyama emphasized the need for placemaking investments in a healthy downtown setting. And while residents call for potholes to be filled and other routine city actions, he said leaders should be mindful of the value and return on investment of looking beyond functionality and safety to higher goals like comfort, conviviality and—most importantly—fun.

“Our residents don’t necessarily know how to ask for other things—things like beauty and art and great design,” he said. “When was the last time you saw ‘fun’ as a stated, articulated goal? ‘Where’s the fun?’ is a good question for us to continue to ask.”

His presentation highlighted examples of “fun” in cities around the country, like an enormous blue bear that stands next to the Denver Convention Center, tiny bronze-caste mice scattered around the Main street of Greenville, SC and the informal, citizen-led Rainworks in Seattle, sidewalk art that is visible only in wet weather.

“Emotions are contagious. You smile, I smile. You cry, I feel bad,” Kageyma said. “The more people saying ‘I love Salt Lake City,’ the more people are going to see it. They’re going to hear it, they’re going to believe it.”

Thursday also saw the awarding of five “Downtown Creator” honorees by the Downtown Alliance. Those winners included the Liberty Sky residential tower (151 S. State), longtime and recently-former Salt Lake Tribune food and drink reporter Kathy Stephenson, staff of the Downtown Ambassadors program, city analyst Russell Weeks and Norbert Bueno of Social Antidote, which produced a series of live performance experiences in partnership with city entities during the COVID-19 pandemic, when traditional venues were closed.

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Benjamin Wood

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