howardnlby Howard Stephenson
November election exit poll results for Salt Lake City revealed that the city is strongly divided along religious lines. According to a Dan Jones analysis, four out of five Mormons supported challenger Frank Pignanelli, while almost the same share of non-Mormons supported Mayor Rocky Anderson’s re-election. Exit polling by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy showed an even stronger division in the community. These results only confirm what we already knew: that despite extraordinary efforts on the part of many, Salt Lake City remains a community divided.

The Main Street Plaza Conflict

The LDS Church’s purchase of one block of Main Street and the creation of a pedestrian plaza on the property is still being challenged in court by the ACLU. Polls show members of the community are also divided on this issue along religious lines.

Incidents of conflict between Mormons and numerous religious protesters outside the church’s October General Conference showed a further divided community. One bright spot was a press conference by religious leaders from various congregations urging the protesters to show greater civility.

Gays to revitalize downtown?

No one argues that Salt Lake’s divisiveness is based on conflicting values. While nearly 70% of Utah is Mormon and many of the remaining 30% of citizens share conservative religious values, only 40% of Salt Lake City residents are Mormon. Mayor Rocky Anderson’s efforts to sell Salt Lake as a place with an exciting adult night life and taking reporters to night clubs and other adult social venues may contradict the values of the church for which Salt Lake is world-wide headquarters, but it may actually reflect the values of a majority of city residents. Perhaps the biggest conflict between the values of Mormons and Mayor Anderson is his public statements about the gay community being an essential part of Salt Lake City’s economic viability. What may surprise many is that Mayor Anderson’s rolling out the welcome mat for gays is not necessarily motivated by a desire to challenge mainstream Utah values, nor is it an idea original to him. In fact, it’s a common theme among U.S. cities.

In its October 2003 issue, Governing, the national magazine for state and local governments, had as its lead article a description of how cities across the United States are undertaking campaigns to attract gay populations as “engines of urban renewal.” Governing tells of research by Gary Gates from the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. which suggests a direct link between gays and economic development in run-down urban neighborhoods. Gates’ data show that gay couples are more likely than others to settle in areas with slightly higher rates of crime, playing the role of “risk takers,” and “urban pioneers,” and thereby restoring economic vitality. Gays are usually childless, so inadequate schools and playgrounds are not an issue. Gay couples also have money to pump into real estate, because they don’t have the costs of raising children.

LDS students to revitalize downtown?

While Mayor Anderson is welcoming gays to revitalize downtown, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also undertaking their own economic revitalization of downtown Salt Lake City. The church recently unveiled plans to spend more than $500 million to move its BYU Salt Lake Campus along with a new campus of LDS Business College and other significant improvements in a two-block area of downtown. Together, these two institutions are expected to bring more than 5,000 students to the area. These students will spend money and help to support downtown businesses. With Mayor Anderson and the LDS church focusing on attracting different populations, downtown retail businesses and housing could receive a real boost.

Gateway vs. Main Street

The economic future of Main Street has been brought into question inadvertently by the Salt Lake City Council, acting as the city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) which gave tens of millions of dollars in property tax diversions and infrastructure improvements to enable the Gateway Project to be created before the marketplace called for it. This writer has been critical of most RDA projects approved by city councils across the state and their attempt to “play god” with local economies. There’s only so much market demand for retail, for office space, and for urban housing, and when city fathers provide incentives for new projects coming on line before the market can justify them, someone else is going to get hurt. And in this case, Main Street is getting hurt. I haven’t heard any city council member admit that their granting of RDA incentives for Gateway helped to exacerbate the Main Street problem. However, the city council finally did the right thing in keeping their commitments regarding the types of stores permissible at the Gateway. Let’s hope the LDS Church’s plans for downtown revitalization will convince Nordstrom to stay on Main Street.

New Taxes on Downtown Businesses

But no matter how much the LDS Church does to improve and even subsidize rents for the properties the church owns, other property owners downtown may continue to struggle. The recent voter approval of $42 million in bonds for six projects including Hogle Zoo, Tracy Aviary, Leonardo Science Center, open space preservation, and a 220 acre regional soccer fields complex, will add tremendous taxes to downtown businesses. Salt Lake will now be the only city in the state where the city’s property tax rate nearly matches the local school district’s property tax rate.

While it was nice of city voters to volunteer to pay for these amenities for all of us to use, voters probably were unaware that these additional taxes may become another nail in coffin for downtown economic development. Pollster Dan Jones stated, “I don’t think [the voters] realized what they were doing. There will be some eyebrows raised and letters to the editor when they get the bill.”

The LDS church’s infusion of $500 million into downtown infrastructure can ensure the survival of at least two blocks and is greatly appreciated by all those involved. However, high taxes which produce high rents may result in vacancies in other retail and office space.

Ogden’s downtown has been dead and dying for years due in part to inordinately high taxes. Let’s hope Salt Lake’s downtown doesn’t suffer the same fate.