Growing Utah’s Regional Center for Culture, Commerce and Entertainment Through Urban Exploration

Last May the Downtown Alliance took a delegation of 20 business and government leaders from Salt Lake City's central business district on an urban exploration trip to New York City. 

Next May the organization will make another urban exploration trip, this time to Chicago's old meatpacking district on the city's west side.

Jesse Dean, director of public policy and urban development for the Downtown Alliance, says a goal of the urban exploration trips is to bring together public and private sector leaders to see what is going on in other cities and if there is something Salt Lake City's central business district can learn in its efforts to grow as Utah's regional center for culture, commerce and entertainment. Another goal is to build relationships among downtown leaders.

"We are not necessarily trying to replicate what's been done in other urban environments, but to see if we can be inspired by the urban centers we visit and take back ideas for development, economic development or infrastructure," he says. "It's one thing to talk about what a city is doing, but quite another to help Utah leaders experience it themselves. That's where the rubber meets the road."

In New York, the delegation, which was comprised of downtown leaders, developers, construction executives and city council members – "people that really care about where downtown is going" – met with the former assistant commissioner of planning and sustainability from the New York Department of Transportation to learn about the city's success in creating pocket parks and urban parks, says Dean. Its goal was to see if there is a way Salt Lake City can better utilize its sidewalks and public spaces.

Nick Como, senior director of communications and marketing for the Downtown Alliance, says the Utah delegation also visited Manhattan's Bryant Park, which is situated between Grand Central Station and Time Square along 42nd street. As a child growing up in New York, Como says he steered clear of the park because "it was one of the most dangerous places in Manhattan, full of drug dealing, peep shows and prostitution." However, over the past decade, New York City has cleaned up the park, turning it into "a nice, relaxing, safe place," he continues. "During our visit to New York, we wanted to know what the city had done around the park and within the park to make it a safe, comfortable place for people, with the question, 'Could Bryant Park give some inspiration for Salt Lake City as it looks at what to do with Pioneer Park?'"

One of the takeaways the delegation learned from the Bryan Park visit involved programming. Como says the park offers positive things to do around the clock. Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park is known for its farmer's market and the Twilight Concert Series, which are good, he adds, "but they come and go. Pioneer Park and the businesses around it could also benefit from around-the-clock programming."

The urban exploration trip to Chicago will take place May 13-16, 2015 and the Downtown Alliance will accept applications to participate through April 1, 2015. The organization has a goal to take 35-40 leaders on the trip. The cost is $2,500 and includes everything but airfare.

Dean describes Chicago as another great American metropolis that has been able to transform itself and recreate areas that were once economically distressed. During the exploration trip the Utah delegation will visit the old meat packing district on the west side, which has been rejuvenated into an innovation center.

"Our focus is on the economic development and business growth in some of the older areas of Chicago," he explains. "The city is finding ways to keep growing and that is what we want to see. We also want to help our participants develop relationships so they don't see themselves as just competing for business."

The delegation will also visit Chicago's Millennium Park, which is the city's showplace for cutting-edge art, architecture, landscape design and music. Dean describes the park as an amazing example of a large park in a metro area that can offer inspiration for public places within Salt Lake City's central business district.

"There are a lot of things happening at the neighborhood level in Chicago and New York City that offer ideas applicable to Salt Lake City's central business district, and we want to be the facilitator for change," says Como. "We want to help determine where the central business district can go and the role it can play in Utah's economy, by helping local leaders develop a vision." The larger goal of the Downtown Alliance, he adds, is to create context and help educate city council members and private sector leaders as they implement their plans and developments. "We want to lead people to create a greater community outcome by showing them examples of what other cities are doing," Como adds.

Salt Lake City's central business district, which extends from North Temple Street to 400 South and from 300 East to Interstate 15, is riding a wave of success. Retail sales set a record in 2013 and 2014 is showing strong results.

"If you knew what downtown was like a decade ago, 'dead' would be too nice of a word to describe it," says Como. Since then the transformation has been remarkable. The growth in retail shops, restaurants and Class A office space has been phenomenal."

And the cranes are still moving. One of the biggest developments underway is the new 111 South Main Office Tower and Eccles Performing Arts Center on the corner of 100 South and Main Street. The development includes a 2,500-square-foot Broadway-style theatre and a 24-story Class A office tower.

"We can't publicly name the tenants of the new building, but it is going to be amazing for downtown," Dean confides. "This development will help continue the revitalization of Main Street."

Another exciting development is the planned convention center hotel. Dean says Salt Lake County accepted the bid from Omni Hotel Group and the next step is to determine a location within close proximity to the Salt Palace Convention Center. "The addition of the convention center hotel will bring in more big conventions to the Salt Palace and help keep the city and downtown area vibrant, exciting and activated," he adds.

Dean and Como say they were at Whiskey Street, a downtown restaurant and bar, on a Tuesday night "and it was packed. People were hanging out, watching sports and socializing. In the past, lunchtime was once one of the busiest times in downtown, but now we are seeing that vibrancy continue at night," say Como.

Much of the nightlife and vibrancy they describe is due to the growing number of people living within the central business district. The Downtown Alliance projects another 10,000 people will live, work and play downtown in the coming years as a wave of young, educated workers choose the urban lifestyle.

Despite the wave of success, Como and Dean say the Downtown Alliance is not satisfied with the status quo and will always be identifying opportunities to grow. "We want to always be pushing the urban center to grow, whether that is through business growth, residential development, arts and cultural events – that is the goal of the Downtown Alliance. We are always aiming higher," Como adds.